One of the great things about the internet, and one of the things I think we’re losing is the ability to experiment. I like to experiment with my technologies, my identity, and my belief systems. This flies in the face of services like Facebook that insist on a single ‘real’ identity while slowly deskill their users.
I’ve been messing about with ZeroNet, which is something I’ve mentioned before, and which gets close to something I’ve wanted now for quite some time: an ‘untakedownable’ website. Whether it’s DDoS attacks, DNS censorship, or malicious code injection, I want a platform that, no matter what I choose to say, will stay up.
To access sites via ZeroNet, you have to be running the ZeroNet service. By default, you view a clone of the site you want to visit on your own machine, accessed in the web browser. That means it’s fast. When the site creator updates the site/blog/wiki/whatever, that’s then sent to peers to distribute. It’s all lightning-quick, and built on Bittorrent technlogy and Bitcoin cryptography.
The trouble, of course, comes when someone who isn’t yet running ZeroNet wants to visit a site. Thankfully, there’s a way around that using a ‘proxy’ or bridge. This is ZeroNet running on a public server for everyone to use. There’s several of these, but I’ve set up my own using this guide.
Finally, if you’re thinking, “What is this?! It’ll never catch on…” then I’d like to remind you about technologies that people didn’t ‘get’ at first (e.g. Twitter in 2007) as well as that famous Wayne Gretszky quotation, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been”.
Depending on when you first got online, images like this that adorned the bottom of web pages 15 years ago may or may not be familiar to you:
To me, it’s a symptom of what happens in unregulated emerging markets with an inexperienced audience. Companies attempt to provide shareholder value by aggressively adding users and making the cost of switching to a competitor high. They do this through incompatibility with alternative products. It’s an example of attempted ‘vendor lock-in’ and, at the end of the day, is all about enclosing things for profit.
It’s nothing new. The Agricultural Revolution in England 250 years ago provides another example. Here, common land was literally ‘enclosed’ for private profit. The people on the land protested, but rapacious capitalists forced legislation through by way of ties with the government. In unfettered Capitalism, public goods are sacrificed to the sword of private profit. The trouble is that we’re see this in the digital world again and again. It’s sad to see the lack of collective awareness.
In software development, a ‘feature’ is something that is meant to be there and is (usually) good for users. The opposite of that – something that’s bad for users – is a ‘bug’. For some reason we tend to treat a ‘bug’ of a the wider ecosystem as a ‘feature’. For example, this (despite how shiny your chosen silo might be) is not the mark of a mature and healthy marketplace:
Forcibly erecting a wall to make apps inoperable provides temporary profit, but is not in the best interests of users. Even on a basic, financial level, re-purchasing apps because you switch device is frustrating. But, more importantly, it means that users have to make forced decisions before they even start using the apps for work or pleasure. As vendors look towards tighter integration between hardware and software for competitive advantage, software decisions are increasingly also hardware decisions. Am I going to purchase an iPhone so I can access this set of apps, or an Android device, to access a different set?
Often, decisions around software are made on behalf of users. For example by schools attended by students, businesses worked at by employees, or even by family members who ‘know more about technology’. The problem here is that the person making the decision has little option but to hitch their wagon to the roadmap of a company pursuing shareholder value. That company is then only likely to consider interoperability as a last resort.
Thankfully, the world is not simply full of companies trying to make money. There’s also non-profits and people innovating on behalf of users. I’m a paid contributor to the Mozilla project, but I also used the Firefox web browser when it was still called ‘Phoenix’. Open standards and interoperability matter. If you haven’t yet explored Firefox OS then I would encourage you to do so. There’s also, amongst others, Jolla’s Sailfish-powered smartphones, or Canonical’s upcoming mobile Ubuntu devices. What’s different about these mobile operating systems is that they’re putting users first; not just in the sense of creating a delightful user experience, but also in terms of giving users freedom and choice.
Let’s learn from our mistakes. As users, let’s not be seduced by ‘free’ as in ‘free beer’ but actively fight for ‘free’ as in ‘liberty’. Given the amount of time we spend on mobile devices, I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that part of the future of human flourishing depends upon it.
I’m not attempting to get into a flame war with this post. It’s a personal reflection and more of a statement than an argument. Please comment appropriately! 🙂
In a perfect world, everything I use would be an Open Source product and have been produced using Open principles and philosophies. I’ve been part of a Becta-funded project into the use of Open Source Software (OSS) in schools, spent time with Linux as my sole operating system, and have given away (to anyone who’d have them) CDs and DVDs containing OSS.
But, without consciously aiming to do so, I’ve found myself using less and less Open Source stuff over the last year or so. Why? There’s several reasons.
1. Standards are to innovate upon
The reason that we have ‘standards’ in any area of life is to ensure compliance. But that isn’t meant to limit creativity and innovation, but to serve as a basis upon which it can flourish. Whilst there’s a lot of wonderful work going on in the OSS arena, there’s also a lot of people and projects engaging in catch-up.
2. Willingness to pay for software
When I was younger I had no or very little money. I’m far from rich now, but can nevertheless afford to pay for software that improves my productivity and/or outputs. This means that I’m using iWork instead of OpenOffice.org, for example.
3. Ecosystems and things ‘just working’
I was sorely tempted to purchase an Android-powered mobile phone recently. The main reason I didn’t? It had nothing to do with the specifications of the phone I had in mind. It was to do with access to the iTunes store. I listen to a lot of podcasts but, since moving completely to Spotify for my music, no longer sync my iPhone at all. Whilst I would be able to use software such as DoubleTwist to get content onto an Android-powered phone, it would mean syncing again and no access on-the-move. That, as they say, was a dealbreaker for me.
The other thing about tightly-controlled ecosystems is that, for all the whinging about control, DRM and monopolies they provide a seamless, enjoyable and fairly risk-free experience to the end user. I know, for example, that I’m going to get well-made app in the iPhone app store, and that books are going to be formatted correctly when using the Amazon Kindle store.
Finally, ecosystems mean that things ‘just work’. I continue to use Google’s online offerings because they all work together so well. I can get data in and data out easily, and transfer information between applications quickly. Taking any longer than necessary to do tasks isn’t high on my list of desirable features for any technology with a thesis to write…
4. Too much choice
The mantra of the ‘noughties’, if it had one, would have been ‘choice, choice, choice’. We were given a plethora of television channels, luxury goods and even hospitals to choose from. More choice, it was argued, led to higher standards.
However, the problem with too much choice is that you become paralysed in the process of decision-making. You need some kind of kind or heuristic to apply to the situation. Think about purchasing a laptop. There are so many makes, types, shapes and colours that it would take a great deal of time even to whittle it down to three choices.
The same goes with software. Once I’ve found a reputable and high-quality source of hardware or software, I’m likely to stick with that source unless something disastrous happens. So who do I look for when I’m making hardware purchases? Apple and Sony. Where do I look first for my online apps and software? Google.
5. Free is not OSS
I still use a lot of free software. But much of it is not OSS. There are new models evolving where the end product is made available either temporarily or permanently to users for free. (think of ‘freemium’ models, sponsored apps and the like!)
The fact that it is (usually) free is, like it or not, the biggest selling point of OSS. Whilst I and others completely buy into the philosoph(ies) behind it, with the increasing availability of free (as in beer) software undermines the appeal of OSS.
I am not advocating that people ignore OSS in favour of proprietary products. Far from it. What I am pointing out here is that the landscape is changing and OSS advocates need to change their approach. My recommendations:
Copyright is a “right” in no absolute sense; it is a government-granted monopoly on the use of creative results. So let’s try calling it that—not a right but a monopoly on use, a “usemonopoly”—and then consider how the rapacious expansion of monopoly rights has always been counter to the public interest…
So, how to protect your ideas in a world where ideas spread?
Instead, spread them. Build a reputation as someone who creates great ideas, sometimes on demand. Or as someone who can manipulate or build on your ideas better than a copycat can. Or use your ideas to earn a permission asset so you can build a relationship with people who are interested. Focus on being the best tailor with the sharpest scissors, not the litigant who sues any tailor who deigns to use a pair of scissors.