Some thoughts on the Internet

It’s been more than three years since I last published anything about technology (it was a post where I expressed my distaste for Instagram on Android, a notion that persists to this very day). And even before that latest post, updates were sparse. Why? Well, the reasons are manifold, but I’ll try to outline a few of them for you here.

When I started writing about the social web, some 12, 13 years ago, every day was filled with wonder. On a daily basis someone, somewhere would come up with a new service I didn’t know I needed, but which turned out to be indispensable (at least for a while). The museum of modern betas used to be a daily visit.  Things were interesting! They got kinda boring after a few years, probably once Facebook started to become the behemoth it is today. Services were bought out left and right, many died off, quite a few were acquihired and then some were sunset. What happened was a streamlining of sorts. Social networks faltered as Facebook grew bigger, and interesting companion services were gobbled up and integrated into the product (or simply ignored and hung out to dry). Yahoo! and Google did their part, trying to emulate Facebook’s success by buying into existing communities, only to let them whiter and (almost) die. Delicious, the initial social bookmarking service, was sold to Yahoo! in 2005 and has since then changed hands twice already. Yahoo! had not a single clue what to do with it and let it deteriorate until it was made obsolete by Twitter and Facebook a few years later. Looking at the website today is almost painful, considering what a thriving community it once fostered. The story isn’t an exception, but rather an example of what happened to user-driven services without a clear monetization-angle.

What also happened was mobile. Back in 2003, mobile wasn’t really a thing. The release of the iPhone in 2007 saw a rapid change in that area, with app reviews cropping up on Techcrunch, Lifehacker, Read-Write Web and all the other usual suspects. The advent of Android in Google’s hands opened up the market considerably, and after a while writing about tech meant writing less about revolutionary new web services, but about services that were confined to a small screen and therefore very specific in their application (it’s no coincidence they weren’t ever called programs).

Unforeseen, but inevitable, was the next phase of the mobile revolution: the walling off of the operating system, ultimately handing control of our devices back to the companies that produced them (or their OS). Sure, people can jailbreak their iPhones or simply install apps from third parties on their Android phones, but the move to a bottleneck that approves programs according to their own guidelines, often enough driven by financial interests, has long been made and will only ever stop once everything we do on our devices can be controlled remotely by whoever produces them.

It sounds like a conspiracy, but it’s nothing new. In the early days of computers, it was the kind of system that made huge profits for companies like IBM. You wouldn’t actually own the software on your hardware, you’d licence it. If you needed a software upgrade, you had someone from IBM come over and install it for you. The creation of the personal computer was a great step forward, and arguably helped build the groundwork for  the creation of something like the world wide web and most of the fun services we are able to use today.

App stores like Apple’s, Google’s or Microsoft are the reemergence of this idea of having total control over what their customers install on their devices. And yes, they’re convenient. No need to update your software manually, they do it for you. And hey, no need to be afraid of malicious code, they check those apps before you use them. The downside is that every developer who doesn’t adhere to the often arbitrary rules of those app stores need to find other ways of distributing their software, ultimately unable to compete with those who decide to go the way of the bottleneck. For the consumer it means that whoever created their device has not only full knowledge of, but total control over what runs on these devices.

And you know what, that’s not even it. Microsoft released Windows 10 recently. It’s definitely one of their best iterations and the best thing: it’s free for all the users of Windows 7 and 8. Of course, now online services and more or less constant connections to Microsoft’s servers are so ingrained into the operating system that it actually needs a workaround to be able to create an account on your own computer without creating an online-account with Microsoft itself. All in the name of interchangeability of devices, cloud storage and other services like Microsoft Office 360, an office suite that you can now rent instead of buy (there’s that again). Money is now made with add-on services and subscriptions, which, conveniently, are served through their own store (over which they have full control).

I read Jonathan Zittrain’s book “The End of the Internet – and how to stop it” a while ago, and what he wrote about the dangers of having the Internet locked down by corporations and governments is actually more real than ever. And apart from a few valiant organisations like the EFF, not a whole lot is being done against it:

Our technologists are complacent because the ongoing success of the generative Net has taken place without central tending—the payoffs of the procrastination principle. Rank-and-file Internet users enjoy its benefits while seeing its operation as a mystery, something they could not possibly hope to affect. They boot their PCs each day and expect them more or less to work, and they access Wikipedia and expect it more or less to be accurate.

(You can read the whole book here).

A few years ago, in order to at least partly work against that development on the web, I created a website called “The Self-hosted Web”, where I try to showcase consumer-oriented software that is self-installed and self-hosted and will allow people to share photos, write blog posts or connect with friends without having to resort to hosted services. Needless to say, it’s an uphill battle, not least because it’s cumbersome to most and security issues are real and pressing. Still, I think it’s a good way to show people that what powers all these services they use daily is actually something that’s available to all of us to build upon.

An attempt at a summary

This has become long and winding and probably disjointed, so here’s a TL;DR for your ADD riddled minds:

When I started blogging, the social web was in its infancy. Blogs were the outlets that allowed us to connect with friends and strangers, then came services and webapps that made it even easier. It was a great ride, adventurous and fun, until the success of the social web became its own deadliest foe. Services like Twitter and Facebook have long IPOed, their interests driven by stockholders. In the meantime the outlets we built ourselves have declined. Those blogs that are left, and arguably, there still are millions of them, are either marginalized or driven by a desire to be as profitable as possible. Which isn’t inherently bad. Who doesn’t like living off of what they like doing most? Still, with the constant demand to be able to monetize any- and everything, we are both eroding the fundamentals of the social-web and by letting them lock down our devices we are giving control back to corporations and ultimately governments.

What’s the solution, then? Hard to say in a general sense, but we can start by supporting organizations and companies that are interested in keeping the web an open and inclusive, instead of a closed and exclusive place. The EFF has been doing this for ages, the Freedom Box foundation is working on secure and safe communication, and despite having a commercial, hosted arm, WordPress is still the best open-source software for publishing your thoughts on the web.

On a personal level? I don’t quite know. I’m as complicit in this as the next person, with my accounts on hundreds of services, Windows 10 running on my computer, the Office 360 subscription I got for convenience and the fact that I’ll be posting a link to this rant on at least two social networks owned by large corporations. But at least I’ve written down my qualms with what’s happening and if you share my sentiments, we can connect on Diaspora and share cat pictures. Or something.



Back to the roots with +1 OR How not to give a shit

RSS, former love-child and poster technology of the social web, is something of an enigma. For some, it’s the second coming of Christ: versatile, indispensable and it can turn one a fish and two loafs of bread into a feast that will feed a million people (disclaimer: that last point is rampant conjecture and might actually not be true). For many others, though, it’s a technology that’s so utterly uninteresting and unattractive, they’d be glad to see it disappear in the depths of that pool where great but unattractive technology disappears to die a slow and painfully ignored death. I’ll just call that the “Not as shiny as Apple”-pool. In that vain, every year there’s renewed discussion whether RSS is dead or not and it never leads anywhere.

The motivation of the latter is clear: Twitter, Facebook and a myriad of other social networks have replaced personal curating. Nowadays, friends and contacts decide what’s worth a read, while, ideally, you can lean back and enjoy. It’s an interesting, albeit heavily flawed concept (more about why I think it’s flawed either in this article, or sometime later. It kinda depends on how much I still care when I’m done writing that other stuff you see below).

Anyway: Google Reader, after the demise of Bloglines and just about any other full-featured RSS-reader probably the last beacon of original RSS-feed love out there, recently received an update which was meant to streamline it with many other Google products. The update is mainly a facelift, adapting it to the no-nonsense, loads of whitespace, more icons, less text design of recent Google products (closely modeled on Google’s new Google+, that social network that’s a lot like Twitter and a bit like Facebook but pretending to be neither).

In addition to that facelift, they also removed its social elements, that is seeing what people you added within Google Reader shared, and the ability to share your stuff with others in return. Instead, they added a big and shiny +1 button underneath every item, allowing you to send stuff to your Google+ profile.

Basically, Google  turned their reader into another content provider for their fledgling social network, removing what they regard as cruft and detrimental to their goal of reaching world dominance. And by world dominance I mean social network dominance (I’m not THAT paranoid).

There’s a small but outspoken minority of Google Reader sharing fans and they are pissed off (as is, according to TechCrunch, all of Iran). Google doesn’t care and I don’t think they should. You see, Google Reader is, first and foremost, a feedreader. You feed it with feeds, it slices, dices and does its thing and what it spits out is what you consume. I remember quite clearly when after their second iteration (the first one was a dud and everyone simply KNEW that Google’s Reader would fail against the mighty Bloglines), that they introduced social elements. And back then, everyone either balked or was foaming at the changes (there was actually not a single person on earth who liked them from the start – I know this for a fact). Fast forward a year or two, and lo and behold, people actually liked the social elements. Fast forward another few years and people are foaming at the mouth for removing those features.

My point, for all you tl;dr people out there: Google Reader is now what it used to be initially: a tool to read your feeds. If you want, you can share articles to your peeps on Google+. And that, my friends, is that.

PS: So no, I don’t feel like elaborating on the flawed concept of the recommendation system. Fear not, I might have time on my hands sometime in the next few months to actually write something up.

The GDrive – don’t fret it, Dropbox (and others)

In tune with my method of forming headlines that distract from my writing’s lack of any real substance or originality, I’ve managed to summarize the whole point of this posting in a mere eight words. But for the sake of you taking the time to actually clicking through to my site, I’ll elaborate just that tiny bit more to make it worth your while.

Now, the fabled GDrive has been around for quite some time now (check out this news timeline for the last couple of years), albeit only in the wet dreams of tech-journos and bloggers. With companies providing online storage sprouting like the proverbial mushroom from the vast expanses of our dear Internet, everyone expected Google to come out with a solution as well. Which, considering they own roughly 90% of all active serverspace currently in existence, wouldn’t be too surprising a move (about that percentage: this is something I just made up, but feel free to quote me!).

Anyway, Google was largely unimpressed with everyone and their grandma pestering them to offer that kind of service already, but a couple of days ago, in a nonchalant move mirroring the actual impact of their announcement, the GDrive was introduced. Only that it’s not called that and that it adds another dimension to the term “underwhelming”.

Why? Well, here’s what it does. Basically, it’s an extension of Google Docs, the online document collaboration tool offered by Google for everyone with a Google account. Until now, the only files you could upload to Google Docs were those that are, well, some sort of document. As the more detailed announcement on the Google Docs blog says , they will start rolling out the ability to upload any kind of file (provided it’s not larger than 250mb), up to a limit of 1GB, with the option of buying more GB for a certain amount of money.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like it. It’s nice to be able to upload all sorts of shit and have it lounging about in my Google Docs window. It’s just, this isn’t anything they couldn’t have done 2 years ago. Actually, it isn’t anything anyone could’ve done 2 years ago with a bit of server space and some spare time on their hands. And yes, I do get the whole sharing idea, which, as we’re being told 24/7 by anyone who thinks you’re listening, is pivotal to the way the Internets work today. But hey, I’ve known of services that let you upload files and share them for, well, ages.

Which ones, you might ask? Well, there’s, which has been around since the Nixon administration (I think), which does a fantastic job, has a great API and is overall one of the best online storage solutions ever. And then of course there’s everybody’s new darling Dropbox. Which, I might add, truly is one sexy little service (and with sexy I really mean useful, I just thought it might sounds sexier to call something sexy instead of useful – for reasons you might want to file under “trying to attract new audiences by using the word sexy”). Dropbox not only lets you upload files, it also offers to sync them to all your computers and portable devices.

Now, let’s return just real quick to that carefully crafted headline you’ve been subjected to at the start of this lengthy beast of an article. Ever since Google has proved to be not only good at search but also good at throwing money and manpower at anything they think might be a good addition to their services (everything), little startups have had it rough. After spending years developing a service and establishing and maintaining a user base, Google could simply step in, decide they want the same thing and suddenly your business model of charging users for what Google offers for free would seem a bit off.

With the GDrive though, Dropbox, and their myriad of colleagues have lucked out. Because even though the GDrive might be an interesting enhancement to Googel Docs, it’s nowhere near anything current online storage services offer, meaning that whoever runs Dropbox, etc., can now finally get some sleep again.

But the best thing about it all? People will now finally shut up about the GDrive.

Google’s Knol

In July 2008 Google released a new service called Knol. You’re probably wondering what sort of funny name that is, and after I’ve told you what Knol does, you’ll still think that, but at least the name will make sense.

So what is a knol? Google describes it like this:

Knols are authoritative articles about specific topics, written by people who know about those subjects. Today, we’re making Knol available to everyone.

Knol has been described by others as a Wikipedia of sorts, but that’s not quite right. While Wikipedia is structured like a classical encyclopedia, with editors guarding like watchdogs what is added or edited, Knol lets many people write many different articles on the same topic. Readers can then rate, review and sometimes even edit other authors articles (via something called moderated editing, meaning edits by others must be approved by the author of the knol). Compared to Wikipedia, that’s about as laissez fair as it can get.

So, how has Google Knol been doing since the start? As the official Google blog announced last month, the 100,000 knols barrier was broken sometime at the end of 2008. That’s not too bad for a service that’s only been around for a mere six months. I guess the fact that Google lets you display ads on your knol’s page didn’t hurt either.

Which is where it becomes tricky. Right now one of the featured knols is an article that deals with plagiarism on Google Knol. According to the article, especially Wikipedia articles get copied massively without attribution, which is simply against the Wikipedia license. And if those people who’ve copied Wikipedia articles also earn money by having ads displayed on their stolen content, it gets a bit nasty.

The measures you can take if you feel content has been plagiarized are absurdly complicated. The owner of the copyrighted material has to contact Google in writing. That’s right, a letter on actual paper. Why on earth they wouldn’t simply let them contact them via e-mail or a form or whatever else people have been using on the Interwebs for the last 15 years is beyond me.

Anyway, I accidentally stumbled over a how-to contest Google Knol is holding in cooperation with, so I decided to add another knol to those 100,000. Since there’s at least a thousands things I could write the most splendid how-tos on, it was tough for me to decide, but I chose something that most people would be able to connect with. That’s right, I wrote a how-to on the perfect Martini. Check it out! And don’t copy it without attribution!