History is a series of pendulum swings between opposite extremes. A generation moves in a certain direction, and the next generation reacts based on the consequences (often rejecting it). Eventually a new generation appears that never directly experienced the consequences and lessons from the previous generations, who then moves back toward that direction and the cycle continues. If you are alive long enough, you will eventually get to see a trend go through its full cycle (such as with high-rise/low-rise jeans or centralized/decentralized computing) and along with it, be able to make some predictions about where the current trend is going.
Over the past few weeks we have seen a massive shift away from a centralized, proprietary social media platform (Twitter) onto a decentralized, federated, open one (Mastodon) that along with a few other indicators points to the pendulum starting to swing back toward an interest in open protocols, networks, and technologies beyond social media. In this post I will talk about the last time this shift happened, and how we can apply the lessons we learned from that experience to today.
The last time this cycle restarted was around twenty years ago. The dotcom boom in the 1990s had spawned many new tech companies large and small, most funded directly or indirectly by advertisements, and all adapting age-old business models to this new technology called the Internet. Before this point the Internet was largely a decentralized environment with personally-owned websites, open forums and chat running on open protocols. The dotcom boom sought to figure out ways to monetize this free-for-all and ultimately to turn the open Internet into a proprietary portal. Companies like AOL and Yahoo! were particularly successful in providing all-in-one portals to the Internet with proprietary chat, news, and forums, as well as a curated directory to view the Internet at large. The goal was to provide the single portal through which people would experience the Internet, largely funded by ads. This Internet was largely powered by proprietary server software and hardware from vendors like Sun Microsystems, Oracle, and to a lesser degree, Microsoft.
With the dotcom bust, people saw companies and technologies they depended on disappear, sometimes overnight, as the ad revenue and venture capital funding them dried up. For instance, decades before Slack and Discord, I was using a proprietary chat service called ChatPlanet that ran from inside a web browser using Java. I had spent years with a community of other folks on that network and it was where I originally met my wife. I even reverse-engineered its proprietary protocol and wrote my own bots and client software. Yet with no warning one day the entire network disappeared as the parent company went bust.
Big Tech powerhouses who seemed unstoppable lost some of their power and influence, and people started looking for alternatives, even with the challenges of moving off of these portals. As a result you saw people start to embrace open technologies. This era (starting somewhere in the mid 2000s) saw the rise of technologies like RSS, XMPP and other open standards, as well as the rise of Linux in popularity both on the desktop and on the server.
Even Big Tech companies like Google embraced RSS (Google Reader) and XMPP (one of the many, many iterations of Google’s messaging client). People were sharing their personal content on the open Internet from self-owned web logs, some self-hosted and others hosted on a suite of platforms that rose to serve this audience. Many proprietary applications moved from running from local desktop apps to web-based applications, allowing anyone with a standards-compliant browser to run them, even on Linux.
If you talked with folks in the free software space at the time, it really seemed like the tide was turning in favor of free software, open standards, and a return to an open Internet. People saw the harms from vendor lock-in and proprietary software and services and were moving away from them. Yet that new golden era only lasted a few years, before we saw a subtle and then sudden return to closed systems and vendor lock-in.
There are many reasons why the pendulum swung back to closed protocols, software, and platforms, but one of the primary drivers was the smartphone. While for all intents and purposes a smartphone was just a personal computer that fit in your pocket, because (compared to personal computers of the time) they were relatively underpowered, they ended up running completely different operating systems and demanded completely new applications. Because websites hadn’t adapted to small smartphone screens, many major websites who previously relied on web-based applications started pushing their own apps as the primary way to use their website.
In essence, the smartphone was treated not as a small personal computer, but as a completely different technology under different rules. Whereas on a personal computer you could install whatever (compatible) software you chose from any third party vendor, smartphones started locking down installation to app stores they owned. Where it would seem unusual, downright creepy, and possibly illegal to capture location data, contact lists, and other personal information on your desktop or laptop computer, it became standard operating procedure on smartphones.
As the smartphone became many people’s primary personal computer, it also became the portal through which they experienced the Internet through social media apps like Facebook and Twitter and other apps (or built-in OS features) that gave customers a filtered, curated view of the Internet. Like during the original dotcom boom, this portal was largely funded by ads. The end result was an Internet centralized within and controlled by a few giant tech companies.
We are starting to enter another era where ad-funded Internet business are having a hard time maintaining their dominance, and anti-trust scrutiny means being gobbled up by a Big Tech company is no longer as likely an exit for venture-capital-backed startups. The instability and rapid disintegration of Twitter has caused many people to look for alternatives and many have found their home in Mastodon, an open, decentralized, federated social media platform powered by the open standard ActivityPub. While the largest instance is at mastodon.social, federation means there is no single Mastodon instance under centralized control or rules. For instance, Purism hosts its own instance at social.librem.one. With the move to Mastodon, people are discovering and rediscovering the benefits of the open web and open standards.
If the past is any indication, the next few years will see an exciting rebirth of open technologies as individuals and companies embrace alternatives to centralized, proprietary tech that could disappear at a CEO’s whim. Having seen the risks of vendor lock-in, and the pain of moving out of closed platforms, many people will be reluctant to accept another closed portal to the Internet after experiencing the freedom of the open web. Yet the past also teaches us how quickly we can forget these lessons. What should we look out for in the coming decade?
The most likely threat against these open standards is new technology that allows Big Tech companies once again to rewrite the rules for personal computers and the Internet. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) computers are the most likely forms this will take, as they promise a new type of personal, wearable computer even more personal than a smartphone. VR/AR operates in a 3D space that is either virtual (VR) or a modified view of the real world (AR).
Since VR/AR applications have to account for three dimensional virtual or real-world space, applications using it require new protocols and new interfaces. VR/AR provides a literal portal through which a person views the virtual and real world, and any company who could dominate that market has the potential to control computer hardware and software, and a new form of the Internet, for at least the next decade or two. This is why Meta has gone all-in on VR tech, and why companies like Apple are exploring Augmented Reality headsets of their own.
For people who value openness, this means keeping a close eye on any attempts to lock VR/AR technology behind proprietary software and closed standards. It means anti-trust regulators will need to keep a close eye on attempts by Big Tech to leverage market dominance in other areas to block competition in this space. And it means that once this technology starts to get wider adoption, the free software community will not just need to push for open standards, it will need to provide its own open alternatives so that individuals can continue to vote with their dollar and with their feet toward open technologies, and reject those that attempt to lock them in.