The way you beat an incumbent is by coming up with a thing that people want, that you do, and that your competitors can’t do.
Not won’t. Can’t.
How did Apple beat Microsoft? Not by making a better desktop OS. They did it by shifting the goalposts. By creating a whole new field of competition where Microsoft’s massive entrenched advantage didn’t exist: mobile. How did Microsoft beat Digital and the mainframe pushers? By inventing the idea that every desktop should have a real computer on it, not a terminal.
How do you beat Google and Facebook? By inventing a thing that they can’t compete against. By making privacy your core goal. Because companies who have built their whole business model on monetising your personal information cannot compete against that. They’d have to give up on everything that they are, which they can’t do. Facebook altering itself to ensure privacy for its users… wouldn’t exist. Can’t exist. That’s how you win.
If you ask actual people whether they want privacy, they say, yes. Always. But if you then ask, are they, are we, prepared to give that privacy up to get things? They say yes again. They, we, want privacy, but not as much as we want stuff. Not as much as we want to talk to one another. Giving up our personal data to enable that, that’s a reasonable cost to pay, because we don’t value our personal data. Some of that’s because there’s no alternative, and some of that’s because nobody’s properly articulated the alternative.
Privacy will define the next major change in computing.
We saw the change to mobile. The change to social. These things fundamentally redefined the way technology looked to the mainstream. The next thing will be privacy. The issue here is that nobody has worked out a way of articulating the importance of privacy which convinces actual ordinary people. There are products and firms trying to do that right now. Look at Blackphone. Look at the recent fertile ground for instant messaging with privacy included from Telegram and Threema and Whisper System‘s Text Secure. They’re all currently basically for geeks. They’re doing the right thing, but they haven’t worked out how to convince real people that they are the right thing.
The company who work out how to convince people that privacy is important will define the next five years of technology.
Privacy, historically the concern of super-geeks, is beginning to poke its head above the parapet. Tim Berners-Lee calls for a “digital Magna Carta”. The EFF tries to fix it and gets their app banned because it’s threatening Google’s business model to have people defend their own data. The desire for privacy is becoming mainstream enough that the Daily Mash are prepared to make jokes about it. Apple declare to the world that they can’t unlock your iPhone, and Google are at pains to insist that they’re the same. We’re seeing the birth of a movement; the early days before the concern of the geeks becomes the concern of the populace.
So what about the ind.ie project?
The ind.ie project will tell you that this is what they’re for, and so you need to get on board with them right now. That’s what they’ll tell you.
The ind.ie project is to open source as Brewdog are to CAMRA. Those of you who are not English may not follow this analogy.
CAMRA is the Campaign for Real Ale: a British society created in the 1970s and still existing today who fight to preserve traditionally made beer in the UK, which they name “real ale” and have a detailed description of what “real ale” is. Brewdog are a brewer of real ale who were founded in 2007. You’d think that Brewdog were exactly what CAMRA want, but it is not so. Brewdog, and a bunch of similar modern breweries, have discovered the same hatred that new approaches in other fields also discovered. In particular, Brewdog have done a superb job at bringing a formerly exclusive insular community into the mainstream. But that insular community feel resentful because people are making the right decisions, but not because they’ve embraced the insular community. That is: people drink Brewdog beer because they like it, and Brewdog themselves have put that beer into the market in such a way that it’s now trendy to drink real ale again. But those drinking it are not doing it because they’ve bought into CAMRA’s reasoning. They like real ale, but they don’t like it for the same reasons that CAMRA do. As Daniel Davies said, every subculture has this complicated relationship with its “trendy” element. From the point of view of CAMRA nerds, who believe that beer isn’t real unless it has moss floating in it, there is a risk that many new joiners are fair-weather friends just jumping on a trendy bandwagon and the Brewdog popularity may be a flash in the pan. The important point here is that the new people are honestly committed to the underlying goals of the old guard (real ale is good!) but not the old guard’s way of articulating that message. And while that should get applause, what it gets is resentment.
Ind.ie is the same. They have, rather excellently, found a way of describing the underlying message of open source software without bringing along the existing open source community. That is, they’ve articulated the value of being open, and of your data being yours without it being sold to others or kept as commercial advantage, but have not done so by pushing the existing open source message, which is full of people who start petty fights over precisely which OS you use and what distribution A did to distribution B back in the mists of prehistory. This is a deft and smart move; people in general tend to agree with the open source movement’s goals, but are hugely turned off by interacting with that existing open source movement, and ind.ie have found a way to have that cake and eat it.
Complaints from open source people about ind.ie are at least partially justified, though. It is not reasonable to sneer at existing open source projects for knowing nothing about users and at the same time take advantage of their work. It is not at all clear how ind.ie will handle a bunch of essential features — reading an SD card, reformatting a drive, categorising applications, storing images, sandboxing apps from one another, connecting to a computer, talking to the cloud — without using existing open source software. The ind.ie project seem confident that they can overlay a user experience on this essential substrate and make that user experience relevant to real people rather than techies; but it is at best disingenuous and at worst frankly offensive to simultaneously mock open source projects for knowing nothing about users and then also depend on their work to make your own project successful. Worse, it ignores the time and effort that companies such as Canonical have put in to user testing with actual people. It’s blackboard economics of the worst sort, and it will have serious repercussions down the line when the ind.ie project approaches one of its underlying open source projects and says “we need this change made because users care” and the project says “but you called us morons who don’t care about users” and so ignores the request. Canonical have suffered this problem with upstream projects, and they were nowhere near as smugly, sneeringly dismissive as ind.ie have been of the open source substrate on which they vitally depend.
However, they, ind.ie, are doing the right thing. The company who work out how to convince people that privacy is important will define the next five years of technology. This is not an idle prediction. The next big wave in technology will be privacy.
There are plenty of companies right now who would say that they’re already all over that. As mentioned above, there’s Blackphone and Threema and Telegram and ello and diaspora. All of them are contributors and that’s it. They’re not the herald who usher in the next big wave. They’re ICQ, or Friends Reunited: when someone writes the History Of Tech In The Late 2010s, Blackphone and ello and Diaspora will be footnotes, with the remark that they were early adopters of privacy-based technology. There were mp3 players before the iPod. There were social networks before Facebook. All the existing players who are pushing privacy as their raison d’etre and writing manifestos are creating an environment which is ripe for someone to do it right, but they aren’t themselves the agent of change; they’re the Diamond Rio who come before the iPod, the ICQ who come before WhatsApp. Privacy hasn’t yet found its Facebook. When it does, that Facebook of privacy will change the world so that we hardly understand that there was a time when we didn’t care about it. They’ll take over and destroy all the old business models and make a new tech universe which is better for us and better for them too.
I hope it comes soon.