It’s the height of summer and a several year old service has captured the mind of mainstream media.
It has a relatively low but highly dedicated audience and is garnering good press both in the blogging community and the mainstream media.
The service is suffering from growth related issues which force it to be down at unexpected times but users put up with it because of its supposed transformational nature.
The service allows people to build things on top of it, offering external parties a greater chance to generate revenue than the company providing the service.
And, establishing further proof that service is going to be important in the future, a lot of mainstream stars are establishing presence quickly, only to slowly abandon those points of presence after a while.
But those stars are no different from most of the service’s users, which tend to abandon it only a month of two after trying it out.
What is that service called?
If you said Twitter, you are clearly reading this in 2009. But, only two years ago, the answer would have been Second Life (something I learned first hand, having been part of the hype around it back then).
of course, I have no doubt that this post will probably receive a high amount of flames because supporters will tell me how Twitter is different. But is it?
The Coral Reef
I’ve always had an affinity for Dave Winer’s Coral Reef analogy. However, even the coral reef analogy seems to eventually break down, leaving people like Winer to think of ways to move out (in a way, Winer fell into the same trap with Twitter as Scoble did with Friendfeed).
The issue here is that a lot of energy gets poured by developers into supporting an ultimately closed system. While artificial coral reefs exists, they are generally part of the larger ocean and tend to be pushed into creation by sinking boats or subway trains. But an important distinction is that the creator of an artificial reef is generally present at the creation but then lets the ecosystem take over and doesn’t try to control anything.
In the tech field, the best analogy for an artificial coral reef would be opening sourcing an important source of code (for example, the apache web server) or making a set of protocols or ideas open to all (eg. HTML or RSS) without requiring that the implementor cede any control to the party which made the code or idea available. Today, you can fok the httpd server if you feel like it or you can adapt parts of HTML or RSS to your heart’s content.
But there’s a different set of ecosystems out there that becomes more of a venus flytrap of technology. I would describe this as fauxpenness:
Fauxpenness: Calling a system or platform open while it is, when more closely scrutinized, under the tight control of its provider.
Fauxpen system (or fauxpen platform): a system or platform that claims to be open but, upon closer examination, isn’t.
It’s the kind of approach that pretends to be open but provides some level of lock-in.
In 2006-2007, we saw that happen with SecondLife, as many developers (myself included) built software code that could run within the SecondLife world but was ultimately stuck there because you could not run it outside that world and/or run SecondLife servers on your own machines.
in 2007-2008, we saw that happen with the F8 Facebook platform, which locks your applications inside of Facebook and, while many developers have pushed to force the company to open up, tends to stay there. In 2007-today, we’re seeing the same thing with Twitter, which allows you to build whatever you want on top of it but doesn’t decentralize their approach, leaving developers potential slaves to the whims of the company. The same is true of the iPhone, which provides unusual access to the phone operating system and allows to develop interesting software on top of it but still keep developers away from being able to access basic things like calendar information via an SDK.
The endless cycle
Interestingly enough, it’s not an unusual phenomenon in the technology world. It works like this:
It happened with SecondLife; it happened with F8; it will happen with Twitter and it will happen with the iPhone at some point. It appears that the natural course of locked API is to get to a point where the developers get so annoyed that they decide to go look somewhere else.
But there’s hope.
Breaking Free of Fauxpenness
Because of the lock-in, it is possible for companies to break free of the cycle. In order to do so, two things need to happen:
- First, the company needs to find a way to establish a business model that does not require lock-in
- Then, the company needs to start removing the lock-in components it offers.
I’m not saying that either of those step is an easy one. In fact, few companies have successfully managed them and, even when they do, the developer community will keep asking for more.
For example, Microsoft’s history is one of establishing initial lock-ins, weeding out the competition and, when its lead is established enough, relaxing the choke-hold it has on the developer community and playing a little nicer until it tries to enter another market. That was the case with Windows; it was the case with Office; and it is the case with IE today.
IBM also took the same approach, initially being a provider of proprietary systems and slowly, over the last 15-20 years, moving to become one of the largest supporters of the open source movement.