App.net is an ambitious experiment to create a for-profit “social infrastructure” system for the Internet: you could use it to build something like Twitter, or a file syncing or storage service, or a notification service. In practice the only one that got any attention, about a year ago, was App.net’s vision of a better Twitter. This came shortly after it became clear that Twitter had decided it was in their own best interest to knife their development community.
Yet like it or not they’re still competing against Twitter, and Twitter is “free.” (The air quotes are important.) App.net started out at a price of $50 a year, then dropped to $36, then added a free tier of deliberately minimal utility. $36/year isn’t an outrageous fee, but it’s infinitely higher than free. It’s too high to even be a credible impulse buy.
Even if you didn’t see the stories yesterday you can write the next part. App.net discovered this model isn’t working well after all, and they’re keeping the service open but laying off everyone. This seemingly crazy move may work, but it reduces App.net to a side project.
Maybe App.net needed cheaper pricing, or maybe it just couldn’t work competing with “free” no matter what. Maybe focusing on the kinds of people who give a poop about Twitter’s relationship to its development community wasn’t the right tack. Maybe its problem is that it was a private haven for rich white tech dudes, as some critics snarked.
Maybe, although I’ll admit the last one grates on me. We’re mocking App.net for having a cover charge—the only legitimate beef, as there’s no evidence they discriminate based on gender, ethnicity or bank statements—then going on to the huge club down the street, the one with ads on every available bit of wall, because they give us cheap beer for free.
But maybe App.net has misdiagnosed the problem.
What’s Twitter’s functionality? Broadcast notifications sent to people who specifically subscribe to them, with simple mechanisms for setting them private or public (i.e., direct messaging) and replying. That mechanism can act as text messaging, group chat, link sharing, image sharing, status updates, site update notifications, news alerts, and more. It’s a terrific concept.
App.net’s best insight was that making notifications “infrastructure” the way email and HTTP are has amazing potential. Twitter has no interest in letting other people use their infrastructure except under the strictest terms. That’s the problem App.net’s model solves. Good for them.
But as much as this is anathema to the Valley’s technolibertarian mindset, infrastructure only works as a common good. Suppose CERN had spun off WebCorp to monetize HTTP. They could offer “free” web with tightly dictated terms on how we interact with their ecosystem, or they could be liberal with those terms and exact a connection toll. But neither of those scenarios would get us to where we are now. The Internet is the Internet because it’s built on protocols that are free. Not free-with-air-quotes, just free period.
"Wait, but if there was free infrastructure to do what Twitter does, how would anyone make money?" At first, by selling commercial clients and servers, although that market would be likely to decline over time. Some companies could run commercial notification networks with access charges to operators. (This vision needs a decentralized network like email to spread operational costs out as broadly as possible, but that network must deliver notifications in fairly close to real time and in the proper order, which is a huge problem.)
In the long run, broadcast notification services only survive if they do become like email services. App.net isn’t making enough money to sustain a full-time business, but so far Twitter isn’t either. They both believe the value is in the infrastructure, and they’re both wrong. The value comes from making the infrastructure free.
Meanwhile, I find the bits of schadenfreude I’m seeing on this—not the “I didn’t expect this to work and I’m disappointed I was right” posts, but the “ha ha, private club goes under” posts—to be a little disheartening. I like free beer, too, but the managers at Club Tweet are starting to look a bit desperate.
The net is abruptly abuzz with news that Facebook bought Oculus VR, the partially-Kickstarted virtual reality company backed by game engine wunderkind John Carmack. And, it’s abuzz with a lot of fairly predictable hair-pulling and shirt-rending.
It’s certainly interesting news, and on the surface bemusing—although no more so than half of what Google buys these days. Facebook seems to be pretty interested in keeping abreast or ahead of Google, too. Hmm. Does Google have any VR product that sort of like Oculus Rift? Something that rhymes with “crass?” I’m sure there’s something along those lines I’ve been hearing about.
Frankly, despite all the hair-pulling I don’t think this is going to make a lot of difference to Oculus Rift users. When it comes to handling acquisitions Facebook seems to be more like Microsoft than Google or Apple. And that’s actually a good thing. Microsoft has certainly done in good products through acquisitions, but look at Bungie and, before them, Softimage, one of the leading high end 3D animation programs of the 1990s. In both cases, the companies were given a great deal of autonomy—what Microsoft wanted them for actually required that. Bungie’s Halo essentially defined the Xbox gaming platform, and Softimage got NT into animation and movie studios. (I suspect this was a much bigger nail in SGI’s coffin than it’s usually given credit for.)
Facebook needs the Rift to be a successful product, and for it to be a successful product they have to not screw with it. They don’t want to take it away from gamers—what they want is, well, pretty much what Zuckerberg wrote:
Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home.
What Facebook wants, ultimately, is to build the kind of communication device that up until now only existed in science fiction. I’m not sure any company can actually pull that off, but I can’t think of another company that genuinely has a better shot. And as much as many things about Facebook continue to exasperate me, I’ve been coming to a somewhat reluctant admiration not only of their ambition but their engineering.
I can’t say this purchase makes me more likely to use either Oculus products or Facebook, but it’s a very interesting milepost. I’ve thought for years that Facebook the product has a limited lifespan, but Facebook the company may have a much longer—and far more interesting—one than I would ever have guessed.
Dan Goodin, Ars Technica:
Hundreds of open source packages, including the Red Hat, Ubuntu, and Debian distributions of Linux, are susceptible to attacks that circumvent the most widely used technology to prevent eavesdropping on the Internet, thanks to an extremely critical vulnerability in a widely used cryptographic code library.
Goodin argues that the bug is worse than Apple’s highly publicized “goto fail” bug, as it appears that it may have gone undetected since 2005.
I’d like to pretend I’m above feeling a bit of schadenfreude given that some of the loudest critics of Apple tend to be the open source zealots, but I’m not. One of the more religious aspects of Open Sourcitude is the insistence that all software ills stem from proprietary, closed source code. If the code is open, then in theory there should be fewer bugs, more opportunity for new features, and a lower chance of the software dying due to abandonment by its original developers for whatever reason.
But in actual, real world practice, software with few users tends to stagnate; software that becomes popular tends to keep being developed. This holds true regardless of the license and access to the source code. There are a lot of fossilized open source projects out there, and a lot of commercial products with vibrant communities. Being open source helps create such communities for certain kinds of applications (mostly developer tools), but it’s neither necessary nor, in and of itself, sufficient. And no one—not even the most passionate open source developer—ever says something like, “You know what I’d like to do tonight? Give GnuTLS a code security audit.”
Apple pulled Blockchain, a Bitcoin “wallet” app, from their store, and Blockchain’s CEO is sure this is because Apple sees them as a potential competitor. “I think that Apple is positioning itself to take on mobile payments in a way they haven’t described to the public and they’re being anti-competitive,” he told Wired.
As usual, though, this comes up because it fits into the default narrative about What Apple Is Like, not because there’s either direct or even circumstantial evidence to support it. While Apple may not welcome competition with open arms, there are dozens of applications on both the iOS and Mac app stores that directly compete with Apple’s products and services. Pandora, Netflix, Hulu, just about every app Amazon makes—by this logic, shouldn’t these all be gone?
For that matter, there are already mobile payment applications in the store that are far more direct competition for this still-hypothetical Apple payment system than Blockchain is. I can walk into (some) stores and pay directly with the Square or Paypal apps, but I can’t walk into a store and pay directly with Blockchain; it has no infrastructure specifically designed for point-of-sale, and even if the store took Bitcoin, I’d rather just swipe a credit card than diddle around with paying by SMS.
So why did Apple pull Blockchain? As usual, we don’t know, because Apple is about as communicative as a sack of flour. But given that they pulled Coinbase a couple months ago, the signs point to this having little to do with competition and a lot to do with Bitcoin. Apple has a rapidly expanding presence in China—whose antipathy toward Bitcoin is crystal clear—and they’re a strikingly conservative company when it comes to financial and legal matters; Bitcoin’s reputation as a haven for illegal activity may not sit well with them.