You’ve heard of the “internet of things”: that just-over-the-horizon utopia in which our formerly dumb, disconnected physical appliances become “smart” and digitally networked. Here’s what I didn’t see coming: an ironically reversed “things of the internet” scenario, in which our formerly networked, interoperable apps and web services evolve into siloed products that can’t and won’t talk to each other. Welcome to the future: you can use gadgets like Twine and WeMo to make your air conditioner talk to your toaster, but you can’t make your Instagram photos show up on Twitter, or your iPhone work natively with Google Maps. (Well, technically there is a workaround for the Twitter/Instagram issue, but don’t expect it to work for much longer.)
Not being able to share photos seamlessly from one social network to another may be the epitome of a “first world problem;” getting lost in the Australian outback because your smartphone manufacturer replaced a bulletproof mapping app with its inferior homemade version is a bit more serious. But in either case, the essential value of these information technologies–their ability to seamlessly interface with each other as only bits, rather than atoms, can–is being purposely eroded. The vision is almost comically retrograde: Twitter, Google, Apple, and Facebook each seem to think that they can provide every conceivable digital functionality to the user all on their own at each other’s expense, much like GM’s “kitchen of tomorrow” at the 1964 World’s Fair promised to meet every need of a 20th-century housewife with one brand. Fifty years later, nobody has (or wants) a kitchen built solely out of General Motors products. So why do Twitter and Facebook act like there is a personal information-technology equivalent?
One reason, of course, is the network effect itself. Unlike blenders or toasters, the value of our digital ecosystems depends on massive scale and zero-sum market forces. Or does it? App.net is growing sideways from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram by acting more like a toaster maker, in some fundamental ways, than a network. As with an appliance, you have to pay if you want to use App.net. That incentivizes App.net’s developers to improve the user experience for their paying customers, not amplify the network effects at their expense. But where making a better user experience for a toaster means “making it easier to toast bread,” making a better user experience for an information technology means “making it easier to usefully exchange information.” So as long as App.net’s user base keeps paying for the service, its API can be as open as it takes to keep them happy.
Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook/Instagram (or Apple and Google) ultimately have to innovate in the opposite direction: away from interfacing with each other (or yet-to-be-invented services) in useful ways, so that their network effects are conserved. But where does that endgame lie? I’d rather have a true “internet of things”–a diversity of usefully connectable products, digital and physical–than a handful of increasingly disconnected monocultures offering “things on the internet.” For all their short term innovation, that’s where the big players seem headed.