Thursday, December 2, 2010

Get Federated Or Get Obliterated

About 15 years ago I was happy with my desktop applications installed. Computer was a glorified calculator, typewriter, and video game machine back then. When I powered up my desktop, I was either going to write quick proof-of-concept Pascal code, type up school reports, or play Doom. All executables and contents that I used was installed on my hard drive. Whenever I wanted to talk to friends, I picked up the landline phone and called. Whenever I needed references checked, I headed out to library.

These days computer has turned into all-in-one communication device. When I open my laptop, I immediately open my browser, check out the latest tech news on Twitter, read what my friends are up to on Facebook, and respond to emails. No longer I have to pick up the phone or drive. I just open my IM client to chat with my friends, or use Google to look up any fleeting question that I may have at any moment. I cannot possibly imagine using a computer without network connection. Computer without internet connection is as good as dead weight.

In this post, I would like to make a case that this increasing connectivity is not a trend isolated to computer networks, but applies to social networks as well. Urge to share things and get connected has deeper roots in our human nature. It is something that cannot be ignored, and must be harnessed to make the leap into next stage of networking.

I will give a few examples what it meant to technology evolution and how it determined the adoption of emerging communication tools. I would argue that the same is true with social network, and lay out the likely scenario for social networks to get federated.

For long term viability of social network as communication platform, I will argue social networks must get federated to survive, or face the inevitability of getting outdated and eventually obliterated.

1. Internal Only Email To Email For Everyone

DEC Logo.  This Brings Back Fond
Memory Of My College Years.
For those of you who are old enough to remember Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) must have used internal only email and messaging system. It used to be that workstations connected to main server was the early intranet. When you want to see whether someone is available, you would type 'finger' or 'w' to see if the other party is online. If so, you were in luck. You could use 'chat' to have real-time chat (what's known as IM today). If the person is not online, then you had an option to send email using 'mail'.

As server and workstations became popular, more companies started to adopt these internal only email system. Soon it became obvious to everyone that linking these islands of email services made sense, and would create disproportionately bigger value for everyone. Companies started to federate their email island to their partners', and this accelerated the adoption of ARPANET mail format.

Some held back saying it would create security concerns in both leaking sensitive information and receiving unwanted files (viruses). Today, no one disputes the value of having global email system and being connected to it. These concerns were valid, however. People have built solutions around these security issues, and they gave rise to Data Loss Prevention (DLP), security and SPAM filtering industry.

2. AOL The Walled Garden

Movie Was Okay; Check Out The AOL Keyword
Shown At The Bottom: "Swordfish"
America Online (AOL) in late 1990's was unstoppable. They made internet easy for millions by simplifying technical configuration required to sign up for a service and dial-up login to AOL server farm. AOL had essentially the same network model as LAN-based DEC server and workstations. AOL subscribers would log on to their servers and see other subscribers who were online, exchange IM/emails and browse AOL-hosted company sites. AOL was a huge LAN network where you could not access contents outside AOL.

At the height of AOL's popularity, there were 30+ million subscribers. It became so popular that every brick-and-mortar stores were buying AOL keywords to reach AOL subscribers (similarity is striking with what we see today with Facebook page as Peter Yared points out on his article).

But AOL did not leverage explosive growth of contents outside AOL's walled garden. As people found richer contents outside the AOL network and companies realized they had to make separate investments to reach non-AOL users, people and content creators started to migrate.

Only after losing more than two-thirds of its peak subscribers, AOL had started to retool themselves to be Internet portal site, a gateway to open Internet. In effect AOL finally dismantled walls around its isolated garden and federated with rest of Internet albeit only after paying heavy price.

Gradual And Painful Decline Of AOL Subscribers;
Lesson Is To Get Federated, Or Get Obliterated

3. Disjoint IM Networks To Federation

After ICQ became successful and acquired by AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google launched their own instant messaging network. Again people were chatting in similar way that chat was running in DEC server/workstation model. AOL users were able to IM with AOL users, MSN users with other MSN users, and so forth.

IM+, The iPhone App
IM Aggregator
Unlike islands of email services, technologies were available to federate these services in their early days. However each provider stood their ground and couldn't work out an agreement to federate. It's only after enterprises started to deploy their own enterprise IM servers and started to federate with each other when AOL and others started to federate with other IM networks.

IM network providers refused to seek the greater value in the face of immediate risk of losing control over their user base. But the fact is that people have been getting around these disjoint network by creating aggregator IM clients to combine AOL, MSN, Yahoo and Google Talk networks (not to mention Skype and Facebook; check out IM+ for the latest attempts at building ultimate aggregator). As discussed in my earlier post, it's futile to resist users improvisational workarounds. You have to evolve your service to support those workarounds as valid use cases.

4. What About Social Network Federation?

If we have learned any lesson from email, AOL, and instant messages, social networks should federate with each other to create global exchange of real-time status updates. It is not zero-sum game. As social networks get federated with each other, values of resulting network is far greater than sum of disjoint networks.

We are starting to see some of them. Twitter has shared its feeds with LinkedIn and Facebook. MySpace is now connecting with Facebook. Enterprise social network on the cloud Yammer is connecting to Microsoft Sharepoint.

But then there are signs of data protectionism from Facebook and Google's policy not to share friends list.

Walled garden policies invite users to create workarounds. Just as islands of IM networks motivated users to create IM aggregators like Trillian and Meebo, preventing users from sharing friends list is already prompting users to create workarounds such as Facebook friend exporter. Rather than resisting federation, social networks need to embrace them.

In reality, however, those who are in control seldom relinquish it voluntarily. History tells us that this federation will be gradual process that will be accelerated only when perceived values outside Facebook is greater than what's found within Facebook. For that perception shift to occur, someone must create more compelling use case outside Facebook.

What might cause this perception shift? I have no idea. But I can tell you that it won't be called social network, but something else. I couldn't agree more with Pete Cashmore at RWW: it would be someone who introduces different communication paradigm than what we know as status update today.

When that next wave happens, users will start to see greater value outside Facebook, and will force Facebook to fully federate with other social networks. Until then, I expect to see continued protectionism from leading networks. And yes, Google will join the race soon, and things are going to get lot more interesting before getting federated.

1 comment:

  1. nice, but how are you smarter than AOL, and everyone else you mentioned?

    Companies go up and down. They are not built to last forever. As my broker says, "no tree reaches the sky".

    I did enjoy reading the article!