Product & Startup Builder

Calling for open

Added on by Chris Saad.

Steve Gillmor often writes fantastic (and fantastically long) editorials on the landscape of the real-time web, but they are often very dense and sometimes fail to cover some key points. I thought I would take the liberty of translating and correcting his latest post with my own contributions.

Ever since FriendFeed was sold to Facebook, we’ve been told over and over again that the company and its community were toast. And as if to underline the fact, FriendFeed’s access to the Twitter firehose was terminated and vaguely replaced with a slow version that is currently delivering Twitter posts between 20 minutes and two hours after their appearance on Twitter. At the Realtime CrunchUp, Bret Taylor confirmed this was not a technical but rather a legal issue. Put simply, Twitter is choking FriendFeed to death.

Translation: The FriendFeed team were absorbed by way of acquisition. Twitter has terminated their priority access to Twitter data because FriendFeed is now owned by Twitter's primary competitor.

Correction: Of course Twitter turned them off. Facebook is Twitter's self-declared number one competitor. When you own the platform and the protocol you have every right to protect your own arse. In fact they have an obligation to their shareholders and investors.

What’s odd about this is that most observers consider FriendFeed a failure, too complicated and user-unfriendly to compete with Twitter or Facebook. If Twitter believed that to be the case, why would they endeavor to kill it? And if it were not a failure? Then Twitter is trying to kill it for a good reason. That reason: FriendFeed exposes the impossible task of owning all access to its user’s data. Does Microsoft or Google or IBM own your email? Does Gmail apply rate limiting to POP3 and IMAP?

Translation: Most commentators think that FriendFeed is dead because the founders have been bought by and buried inside Facebook. If FriendFeed is so dead why is Twitter trying to choke it.

Correction: FriendFeed is clearly dead. If you have ever worked for a startup and tried to ship a running product you know that focus is the only thing that will keep you alive. Facebook is a massive platform serving a scale of social interaction that has only been previously seen by distributed systems like email. The last thing Facebook wants is for its newly aquiried superstar team to waste time working on a platform that no longer matters to their commercial success or the bulk of their users (i.e. Friendfeed).

Twitter is choking FriendFeed for another reason - because it's systems are now essentially just a proxy to Facebook. As stated above, Twitter can not give it's number one competitor priority access to one of its major assets (i.e. timley access to the data).

The data that Microsoft and Google does not exercise hoarding tactics over (the examples Steve gave were IMAP and POP3) are open standards using open protocols.

I am never sure about Steve's position on open standards, he often vacillates from championing the open cause through projects like the Attention Trust only then to claim things like APML and DataPortability are bullshit - maybe he just doesn't like me (That can't be right can it Steve?).

The fact is, however, that open standards and protocols are the basis for open systems which is why companies like Microsoft and Google do not control your email. Twitter and Facebook are not open systems.

So the reason Twitter is killing FriendFeed is because they think they can get away with it. And they will, as far as it goes, as long as the third party vendors orbiting Twitter validate the idea that Twitter owns the data. That, of course, means Facebook has to go along with it. Playing ball with Twitter command and control doesn’t make sense unless Facebook likes the idea of doing the same thing with “their” own stream. Well, maybe so. That leaves two obvious alternatives.

The first is Google Wave, which offers much of the realtime conversational technology FriendFeed rebooted around, minus a way of deploying this stream publicly. The Wave team seems to be somewhat adrift in the conversion of private Waves to public streams, running into scaling issues with Wave bots that don’t seem to effectively handle a publishing process (if I understood the recent briefing correctly.) But if Waves can gain traction around events and become integrated with Gmail as Paul Buchheit recently predicted, then an enterprising Wave developer might write a bot that captures Tweets as they are entered or received by Twitter and siphons them into the Wave repository in near realtime.

Translation: Twitter is killing FriendFeed because they think no one will notice or care enough to stop them - Twitter has more than enough momentum and support to continue along it's current path. Facebook wont cry foul because they are doing the same hoarding technique with their own data.

Maybe Google Wave might save the day, but they seem to have lost their way.

Correction: Actually the only people who can call bullshit on Twitter and Facebook is us, the media. We are all media after all. Steve Gillmor in fact is one of the loudest voices - he should call bullshit on closed systems in general. Instead we all seem to be betting on one closed system to do better than another closed system.

We are like abused wives going back for more, each time pretending that our husbands love us. Guess what, they don't love us. They love their IPO.

I was the first to support Google Wave very loudly and proudly. I met with the team and was among the first to get in and play with the preview. It is a revolution in collaboration and how to launch a new open system. It is not, however, a Twitter or Facebook competitor. Especially not in its current state. It is not even a replacement to email. It is simply the best damned wiki product ever created.

Waves are the 180' opposite of FriendFeed and Facebook or even Twitter. They are open, flexible and lacking any structure whatsoever. Their current container, the Google Wave client, however, is totally sub-optimal for a messaging metaphor much less a many-to-many passive social platform. It is a document development platform. Nothing more.

The same could be true of Microsoft’s deal for the firehose, but here, as with Google, Twitter may not want to risk flaunting ownership of a stream that can so easily be cloned for its enterprise value. And as easily as you can say RSS is dead, Salesforce Chatter enters the picture. Here’s one player Twitter can’t just laugh off. First of all, it’s not Twitter but Facebook Benioff is cloning, and a future Facebook at that, one where the Everyone status will be built out as a (pardon the expression) public option. This free cross-Web Chatter stream will challenge Facebook’s transitional issues from private to public, given that Salesforce’s cloud can immediately scale up to the allegedly onerous task of providing personalized Track on demand.

Translation: Maybe the enterprise players - specifically Salesforces' Chatter - will save the day.

Correction: Doubtful. This is just another closed system for a specific vertical. It's long overdue. It is awesome. But it is not a Facebook or Twitter competitor much less an open alternative to the proprietary messaging systems we keep flocking to. It is simply a long overdue expansion of the simple changelog tracking feature on ERP assets. It's a simple feature that was sponsored by a simple question. "Why doesn't the asset changelog include more data - including social data?". Duh. I was doing this in my own web based CRM at the start of the decade.

It’s likely this pressure can be turned to good use by Facebook, unencumbered as they are by any licensing deal with Twitter. Instead, a Chatter alliance with the Facebook Everyone cloud puts Salesforce in the interesting position of managing a public stream with Google Apps support, which eventually could mean Wave integration. Where this might break first is in media publishing, as Benioff noted at the CrunchUp. Twitter’s leverage over its third party developers could be diluted significantly once Salesforce offers monetization paths for its developers. So much so that this may call Twitter’s bluff with FriendFeed.

Translation: No idea

But FriendFeed has always been more of a tactical takedown of Twitter than an actual competitor, a stalking horse for just the kind of attack Twitter seems most afraid of. No wonder the speed with which Twitter is introducing metadata traps to lock down the IP before a significant cloud emerges to challenge its inevitability. Lists, retweets, location — they’re all based on raising the rate limiting hammer to discourage heading for the exits. It’s not that retweets reduce the functionality of the trail of overlapping social circles, it’s that they lock them behind the Wall.

Translation: Twitter is introducing more metadata into tweets to maintain its lock in through API limits etc.

Correction: On this point Steve is partially correct. This isn't about rate limiting though - it's about turning Twitter's proprietary protocol into a real-time transport for all the data the web has to offer. It is not about API limits but rather cramming so much value into the pipe that the pipe becomes like water - you gotta drink from it or you're going to die.

I don’t expect anyone from Twitter to answer the simple question of when will Twitter give FriendFeed the same access they provide other third party client vendors. For now, it’s frustrating to not see the flow of Twitter messages in realtime, but over time we’ll build tools on top of FriendFeed to take such embargoed messages private. Once inside FriendFeed, the realtime conversations that result are just the kind of high value threads Chatter will support, Wave will accelerate, and Silverlight will transport. Keep up the good work, Twitter.

Translation: I doubt Twitter will play nice with FriendFeed and give them equal access again because once items are inside FriendFeed they turn into rich conversations. Conversations that Chatter will support, Wave will accelerate and silverlight will transport.

Correction: Actually Twitter does not and has never given fair and equal access to its data. FriendFeed had a moment in the sun with first class access the likes of which almost no one else has seen before or since.

I have no idea how Chatter fits into the B2C picture - it is clearly an Enterprise play for Salesforce. Wave indeed will act as a great interface through which to participate in real-time threads. The threads themselves, however, will need to be generated or framed by much more rigid systems designed for public discussion.

Silverlight is great for rich web apps. It is Microsoft's way of bringing the richness of the client into the browser. Just like .NET is to Java, Silverlight is to Flash. A way for Microsoft to leverage a key technology component without handing the crown to someone/something it doesn't control. But I'm not sure if fits into this discussion.

In the end, the only real solution for all of this, of course, is a return to the way the web has always worked (well). Open systems. The transport should not be Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, Wave or any other nonsense. It should be RSS and Atom ( specifically) transported over PubSubHubBub and read by open standards aggregators. The namespaces should be OpenID based and adoptable by all.

The sooner the early adopter community realizes this, the commentators push for this and the developers code for this, the better off we will all be.

Disclosure: I work for JS-Kit, creators of Echo - one of the largest providers of Real-time streams. I also Tweet - trying to find an alternative though!