Fear Strikes Out

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dalicuAT&T’s decision to allow VoIP onto the iPhone changes the balance of power in the communications industry. The move underlines Apple’s dominant position as the prime mover in converting the phone into the core identity container on the network. As Mike Arrington intuited, number portability via Google Voice was worth more than the Apple device, at least for the political purpose of calling the issue to the floor.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the relationship between Google and Apple, but far more important than that cleanup operation will be the effect on other identity firefights. In particular, the SideWiki conflagration, otherwise known as Hey, Get Off My Lawn, threatens to alter our perceptions of what constitutes the basic unit of Internet communications.

If the most recent era of Net value has been dominated by the architecture of Page Rank, SideWiki and other realtime intermingled services including Google Wave, FriendFeed, Disqus, and Echo are just the first cuts at an atomized page that bases its content according to the identity of the viewer. Today, the look and feel of the “page” is determined by the viewer’s profile, which identifies the groups, communications channels, aggregated services, and “friends” they belong to. At its simplest, a browser detect delivers an iPhone interface to those users. At its more complex, FriendFeed filters content based on social data from many of these profile sources.

But SideWiki, PubSubHubbub, and Google Wave seem much more intimidating because of their actual or virtual support by a dominant player. What might seem acceptable writ small (realtime discussions attached to streaming video services on FriendFeed) suddenly appears threatening when viewed through the lens of Google patronage. Never mind that these so-called BigCo strategies are laced with open technologies, standards, and evangelists hired away from the open source community. It’s still a modern day Medici who rules with a benevolent velvet fist.

That of course provides an opening for the so-called Decentralization crowd, who argue that size does matter and that Google can’t be trusted any more than Microsoft or Apple was or is. Only a small band of new patriots can employ the open techniques. If a company starts small and then achieves mass (Twitter) then the analysis needs adjustment. At some point, these startups turn from being the good guys to the bad guys. Of course, the idea is that you should trust the new guys now that the old new guys have something to lose.

This is one of the problems with the success of RSS and, to some degree, podcasting. They appeared to be revolutionary in their disruption, but in fact tended to reinforce the medias they supposedly replaced as they gained traction. While we were busy enjoying the excitement of penetrating the closed walls of the media club, we conveniently overlooked how the winnowing process of the hunt would look a whole lot like the show business we were trying to break into.

The business model (or lack of it) that we accepted as the opportunity cost of getting in the game proved less acceptable once we were inside the circle. Debates about with or because did nothing to change the reality that in a world of unfettered access the index became the barrier. And when the index shifted to a more immediate and simpler technology (Twitter) the money flowed with it and away from the technologies that opened the door. The same thing happened with the carriers.

The iPhone brought down the wall of voice by transferring the index from the phone number to the URL and the new identity. As Web usage grew, the need for more powerful filters drove the increased value of our social addresses, making voice less significant as the gatekeeper to our attention. Twitter quickly gathered momentum by aggregating IM, email, blogging, and rich media under a single apparent transport, and its follow and track tools proved more fine grained and precise than the legacy alternatives. From there, it was only a short hop to money flowing into those priority lists as they became the new gatekeepers.

SIdeWiki appears to be a hijacking of the so-called original content of the blog post, but perhaps that’s looking at what’s happening through the other end of the telescope. In fact, SideWiki and Wave and Twitter are where the index is, and the posts are looking more and more like comments on the stream. Of course, that raises the specter of lock out by market force, and signals the attacks on the SUL, Google’s scale, and Apple’s Walled Garden.

But success at disrupting this grand conspiracy of size — VoIP coming to the iPhone — does not mean failure even for the so-called vanquished. In fact, the big will get a lot bigger, as Google and Apple have now been blessed by government pressure to provide the fruits of an effective alliance without the threat of antitrust action. That’ll teach ‘em. And SIdeWiki will be pushed to provide some form of control for page “owners” that will likely involve some available identity system to white- or blacklist offensive comments. Oh wait, we can use the Gmail contacts and mandate Google social constructs as part of the solution. Cool, no more clumsy backwards engineering of the Gmail social graph. The government insists.

It leaves us to ponder the rationale of rssCLoud and other attempts to foil the BigCos. Is there going to be a decentralized core of adoption that will blunt Twitter/PubSubHubbub/FriendFeed or SideWiki/Wave/Chrome’s control of our data? History doesn’t suggest that outcome. I think people are making a fundamental judgment about the framing of open v. closed. Steve Jobs bet that our desire for control of our identity would trump the hiccups along the way to that reality, and AT&T is validating it for what it is, good business.

The iPhone continues to show how a hybrid of open and closed has staying power with the voters. As long as it delivers increased opportunity, nobody really cares how it works. Faced with a shortened URL that requires a leap of faith, we opt for a social cloud that over time produces a good result based on the power of our peer relationships. The tools that give us the choice of modeling trust relationships will do better. Over time, we and our friends will gain more from faith in our harnessing of identity than fear of its dangers.

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