Saturday, September 5, 2015

Open Social Media is a decade away

Today we wanted to send a video birthday greeting to our eldest, who is far away. We asked our youngest to make it happen (in part because her newer iPhone has 64gb while my two-year-old 16gb is full).

The two of them have in common Snapchat and Instagram; the eldest also has WhatsApp and the youngest has Twitter. Our youngest first considered Snapchat, but that’s temporary and has a 10-second video limit, so instead chose Instagram that has a 15-second limit. They both also have Facebook, but that seems mainly used for relatives and other clueless people to send one-way communications to these teens. They also talk via Skype but (like me) don’t launch it often enough to see text messages.

I use Twitter hourly and Facebook every day or two, while my Instagram and LinkedIn (web page) get launched perhaps once a month. So I went to Facebook to send a birthday greeting to our eldest — as did 11 other people, including my sister — but unlike with my middle-aged friends, did not prompt an ongoing stream of likes and replies.

Clearly there is both a proliferation of competing social media platforms and little or interoperability. Some people do automatic (one-way) feeds using tools like TwitterFeed and Hootsuite, but that doesn’t allow for conversations to take place across social media boundaries.

I am told that at the turn of the (20th) century telephone systems were not fully interoperable, and having a phone in one town meant you couldn’t call another. I wasn’t there and my dad’s gone, so (short of spending an afternoon on Google) I can’t confirm this. But (grabbing The Fall of the Bell System from my bookshelf) it’s clear that by 1913 AT&T had achieved interoperability between its local operating companies and its Long Lines division, allowing transcontinental calls to be made on its system.

From my (aborted) dissertation, I also know that the design points of 1st generation analog cellular systems in the US, Japan and Europe were to be fully interoperable with the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network). The US pre-cellular mobile phones of the 1960s required an operator to route calls to the PSTN, but the invention of the microprocessor made it possible for the AT&T’s car phone (and later Motorola handheld phones) to automatically complete calls. When the EU and the CEPT invented GSM —and with it Short Message Service — they made text messaging also interoperable (except with landlines) over the PSTN.

And, of course, fax machines used the PSTN to complete calls, but generally agreed on a series of (ever-improving) transmission standards for the graphical representation of the images sent over those calls. So when the telcos were involved, they grokked interoperability.

A Lesson from E-mail

Perhaps a better — or at least more recent — analogy comes from the proliferation of incompatible e-mail systems prior to the commercial Internet.

Using Google, I found a February 1987 posting I made to the Info-Mac e-mail list. After I quit my job to become a Mac developer but before co-founding Palomar Software, I used this as the signature line

Joel West                            MCI Mail: 282-8879
Western Software Technology, POB 2733, Vista, CA  92083
{cbosgd, ihnp4, pyramid, sdcsvax, ucla-cs} !gould9!joel
In between, I know my various Palomar business cards had e-mail addresses for MCI Mail, AppleLink (later eWorld) and perhaps my AOL account as well. When Apple finally provided full Internet interoperability, it said, while the next business card said when we bought our own domain name and locally hosted server.

So there was roughly a 10-15 year period when the proliferation of proprietary e-mail systems meant that two people could have e-mail accounts but not be able to e-mail each other — and (like today’s social media) people might maintain multiple e-mail accounts.

Now, any e-mail user can send to any other. With various MIME and HTML extensions — and dozens of client implementations —  the e-mail may get garbled or unreadable due to mutually incompatible interpretations of the format standards, but that’s a function of commoditized (often free) e-mail clients that don’t reward quality control.

Open Social Media

Will we ever have open social media? That would mean that there was some sort of formal interoperability standard (beyond OpenSocial), that it was implemented by the major platforms and that these implementations include the full functionality of their native platforms — public and private messages, text, images, video, “like” and perhaps even adding friends. (This ignores inherent incompatibilities such as the SnapChat model of disappearing messages).

The business models of these various companies seems to assume (or hope) that we will not, and that they can create stickiness and keep us in their proprietary walled gardens for as many hours/day as possible. This creates winners and losers: I like the idea of LinkedIn for contacts but hate it as a content site, and so only visit it when I’m seriously procrastinating (not Twitter or Facebook or blogging procrastinating) to avoid something I really ought to be doing.

One path forward would be vertical integration, but with one exception that seems a long way off. The exception is Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, and so could make them interoperable at any point.

Microsoft has Skype — but no real social media — but until one of these platforms falters and is available for sale, it will have nothing to integrate. Google still thinks people will someday use Google+ and would probably be blocked anyway by the EU from buying one of the major social media platforms. Apple with iMessage seems to want to add convenient, easy-to-use clients on top of the existing (commodity) addressing and delivery systems like text messaging, rather than build a proprietary communications platform and try to gain share against the Silicon Valley upstarts.

The 10-15 year time horizon could apply here as everyone copies each other’s features and (like email) social media platform become passé and readers move on to something else. Twitter launched in 2006, WhatsApp in 2009, and Snapchat in 2011. So realistically, barring some blockbuster acquisition there’s not much hope for the rest of the 2010s, but the 2020s seem likely to bring improved interoperability in this segment.