My friend Orian has been posting a bunch of interesting entries on his blog on the need for an open alternative to the social services we use today. Personally I am a big fan of open source having released a bunch of projects and UI frameworks under the MIT license. I have a lot of strong thoughts on that so I figured its worth a post.
The conversation is not very new of course, there have been a bunch of attempts at open alternatives to the services we use today. The ones that immediately come to mind include:
- Diaspora and OpenSocial vs. Facebook
- Identi.ca/oStatus vs. Twitter
- OpenPhoto vs Flickr/Instagram
In fact, if you google “Open source version of <insert-service-here>” you’ll find a bunch of projects and sometimes even companies that have tried to deliver on the promise of the open web. There have even been academics who have tried to come up with the next evolution of the internet as a whole where our data and connections isn’t held captive by companies who see that as a source of corporate value. These specs unfortunately often become so complex that any company looking to build a new product just chooses to ignore them (think RDF/OWL and the mess that is the semantic web specs). But as I see it, there are still a bunch of problems:
Closed is profitable
At least the way companies are evaluated today, closed services tend to be considered very valuable. So “product companies” will never support a spec that may truly open data if they can help it. Even Google, which has a strong profit motive for an open internet, is building a walled Google+ experience. At this point the people who seem to really be trying to build open systems and “change the world” are those with personal convictions to build open applications where there desire to profit is outweighed by a desire for improving the world we live in.
Will regular people pay for “open”?
People like Dalton Caldwell seem to think so, but I’d disagree. At least the vast majority (non technical) of people probably won’t unless they feel its hugely valuable, and these services can only succeed if a majority of a user’s social network are on the network. Unfortunately, openness isnt so much a product feature a lot of folks care about, its a nice to have. Its like computer backups. Noone cares till the day you lose it all and then its too late. If you are truly going to get people to move to a new product from a product that they have invested a lot of time and effort in, whats the reward? Where is the excitement?
Better > Open
I wish folks would look beyond trying to build open services towards building better services that are open. Differentiate by doing well what the existing service does poorly. A lot of people consider open just a philosophical medal of honor, but its actually a very strong business strategy to disrupt established businesses. Think of Android, Apache, Webkit, Red Hat (the first billion dollar company based on open source). If you do open the right way, you can accelerate beyond your competitors even (especially?) if you arrive late to the party.
A different business model
Over the last few years we have been conditioned for free services and products. What I’d really like to see is true innovation in business models. Something beyond a simple pay or ad-supported service. For example:
- Pay for a group: Instead of a service fee of $5 per person maybe its $10 but for 5 invites (don’t have the single user option at all so people actually invite friends who won’t get on otherwise)
- Pay for the pipe: Think of a social network based on top of a connectivity service like Dropbox. Pay for the sync service and get a lot of apps on top of it. Apps get a share of the revenue from the service based on usage of the app.
- Bid for app extensions: Pay the developers for additions to the app so we don’t have another “I paid startup x but they sold themselves to company y” (ex: Sparrow)
My point is that there may be something really new that we really need to think about instead of just the “ad support” and “pay” model that we currently discuss.