Last week and over the weekend, a skirmish has started in the online social network world. Even though it’s between the big players FaceBook and Google, they are both still missing the point.
In a recent TechCrunch article, Arrington describes a secret NDA-protected meeting where Google discussed what it was going to do about the “Facebook issue”. Essentially, Google wants to “out-open” Facebook by providing APIs to pull data out of the service and possibly allow 3rd party applications to use the Google backend as a repository for their own social information.
Excuse me if I point out that neither Facebook nor Google are addressing the real issue at hand. “Social networks” are the crappy proto-versions of a coming integrated “online” communication system. The future is not in social networks, but in the type of communication they represent. Social networks are just one form of that communication.
The difference between “online” and “offline” is an entirely imaginary distinction created by people who were alive to know both eras. It is roughly equivalent to dividing time and space into segments based on before and after indoor plumbing. The newest generation doesn’t distinguish “online” as special any more than my age segment considers speaking on the phone to be an uncommon occasion. There’s no separation between the business and social life that I lead “on phone” versus “off phone”. The telephone is merely and extension, a tool, a conduit.
Thinking of which, my phone also has a special ability not shared with current social networks: carrier agnosticism. Using my handset I can dial any other number-holder whether that call terminates in Verizon, AT&T, Sprint or elsewhere. Why? Because no one company can afford to not interconnect their networks. The value of a network increases with each available node so the multiple major players are forced to open their connections lest they be “left behind” by other carriers that will allow their customers to reach more nodes.
The openness of this (connection as a service) encourages innovation within a shared set of protocols and guidelines. As long as it still “works” on the network, keep innovating. Note that this is the same pattern in the web itself as proprietary networks such as Prodigy, AOL, and CompuServe all migrated towards basic ISP services instead of walled-garden content approaches. The simple reason for the migration was the wealth of compelling content available from providers uninterested restricting their content to single networks. Why lock yourself into one single market when you can provide your product to the entire market across a common language?
Unfortunately, this pattern all points into an area where few large companies want to compete: commodity services. To those with dollar signs singing in their sleep, “commodity” is a painful, dirty word where products must compete both on their merits and consumer whimsy. Even if you’re the best, you are forced to walk that careful line between technological prowess and merchantability. It also shines bright lights into the cobwebs of your code; ruthlessly ferreting out weakness.
Given this unappealing opportunity, where are we left? I feel that ultimately both consumers and producers will jump on an opensource system hosted on multiple and neutral servers allowing the seamless interactions and relationships across multiple platforms and protocols. This is the underlying technology of the “social client” I described earlier.
When? When the time is right, and not before. (but soon, by the looks of it)