Social networks and data portability

by Matt 20. May 2008 16:27

Speaking of data portability, and how Live Mesh plays with this, some of the big boys have recently made announcements - MySpace, Facebook and Google.

MySpace seems to be playing catch up and are announcing a REST API, initially restricted to a few partner sites. Perhaps the least impressive announcement, but the interesting part is the use of the OAuth standard for authentication.

Facebook then (a little too) hurriedly announced Facebook Connect, which seems to be a way for you to associate your profile with a third party site. That site then seems to get privileged access to the Facebook data.

Google announced Friend Connect, which is a complete sleight of hand trick. It's all about creating a social network at your site, but by hosting Google gadgets. One gadget is the master membership gadget, and all the others are OpenSocial gadgets that do "social" stuff. When you visit the site, you sign in to the membership gadget (via Google Accounts, Facebook, OpenID or AIM account). Then, the membership gadget lists all of your friends from these accounts that are also friends at the new site. The other gadgets provide the social element, such as comments.

So how do the big boys handle Data Portability? Well, poorly.

Surprisingly, MySpace is the most open. Facebook's offering definitely seems to be a step in the right direction, but appears to be limited to certain 3rd parties, and is entirely proprietary. But Google. Oh boy. They're not even trying. All of the data is stored in Google's silos. They aggregate data from other networks, but don't let any of it out - a proper roach motel. Their social offering is all based on gadgets, and the hosting site doesn't see any of the social data.

Charitably, you can view Google's play as not being about data portability, but about enabling sites to easily add a social element - playing to the Long Tail of sites wanting a social element without having to build up the number of members required to make a successful social site.

Of course, the fun only starts there. Facebook have banned Google's Friend Connect from accessing the Facebook API, because they've violated the terms and conditions of the service (more from TechCrunch and a detailed view from Google). It would be very easy to be snarky here and ask how committed Facebook is to Data Portability...

(And Dare makes a welcome return to blogging with a great post about this.)

But it does raise a very interesting question that Live Mesh (which might be able to sidestep these portability issues) doesn't address - ownership of data. DataPortability.org's Chris Saad has an interesting view on this in his blog post "Forget Facebook".

My address book is my own. When you email me, or when you communicate with me, you are revealing something about yourself. You define a social contract with me that means that I can use your information to contact you whenever and however I like - I could even re-purpose my address book for all manor of other things.

If, however, you violate that trust, either directly or indirectly, you break the social contract and I will tend to not deal with you again. We can not perfectly engineer these sorts of contracts into systems - we can try, but in the end social behavior will be the last mile in enforcing user rights.

And I think this nails it. Unless you want one way communication, you have to share information. You need to trust who you're sharing that information with, just like we do in the Real World with telephone numbers and addresses. Any technological barrier we put in place here is just Rights Management, and we all know how well that's worked out for DRM.

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Live Mesh

by Matt 17. May 2008 18:15

Live Mesh has been out for a little while now, and while I'm still waiting for my invite, I have been digging through the available blogs, documentation and videos.

Now. This is going to be a long post, because Mesh is kinda deep. You've been warned. Go and get a coffee.

Put simply, Live Mesh is a synchronisation platform. We've seen plenty of those before, even from Microsoft themselves (FolderShare, SyncToy), and the current user experience of sync-ing files and folders doesn't really distinguish itself from the other offerings. (DropBox is a beta application that is almost indistinguishable - with a good flash video intro). It might not be terribly remarkable, but it works, and it's definitely a useful tool as it stands. The platform is the best bit.

Let's try and describe what you get in as few words as possible.

A Mesh is made up of multiple devices. A device is really any kind of computing device. The Windows PC is currently the only one supported, but Mac and (Windows) mobile support is coming soon. You can create special "Live Folders" on your devices, and the contents of these are replicated to any or all of your devices. Any changes you make to any files in any folders on any device are replicated to all devices. So far so good.

There is a special device called Live Desktop. This is more than just another device, and is provided by Microsoft. Firstly, it's a device living in the cloud, and provides you with 5 gig of cloud based storage. Secondly, it's accessible via the browser (using a simulated desktop UI, complete with Explorer windows). Thirdly, it's really the coordinating service and notifies all the other devices when changes are made, so that they start updating their copies (future versions will apparently support a more peer-to-peer approach for this kind of thing), and it is instrumental in setting up a browser based (as in, ActiveX) remote desktop into your devices.

So we've got a platform that allows me to have my files locally, on any device I own. It also gives me access to those files remotely, via the cloud storage or via remote desktop. It's the Software + Services model, but larger. Instead of giving me access to my data from wherever I need it, it puts my data wherever I am. A subtle distinction, but incredibly significant when you start to consider things outside of the mesh I've described so far.

The synchronisation platform Microsoft have built is where things start to get fun. It's all built on feeds. You know, RSS and Atom. Everything that is a list is a feed - list of devices? Feed. List of folders to sync? Feed. List of files and folders in each folder? Feed. Each file's metadata is stored as the item entry of a feed, and the file itself is referenced as an enclosure. And then they layer FeedSync on top of the feed. FeedSync is Microsoft's extension to feeds to provide versioning, history and conflict detection (but not conflict resolution. I don't know how Mesh handles conflicts).

This is probably the masterstroke of the platform. They haven't just built a platform for synchronising files and folders, they've built a platform for synchronising feeds. And feeds can hold any kind of structured data. Contacts, bookmarks, comments, status updates, calendars, bank transaction data, you name it. And they've used existing, open data formats. The data is available from the cloud as Atom, RSS or JSON, via a REST interface, using the Atom Publishing Protocol. All the current industry darling buzzwords - everything to make life easy to make mash ups.

And (the SDK isn't yet available but I think this is how it's going to work) you can easily imagine a web site that talks to the Mesh cloud interface and gets (secure) access to your Mesh data. And your rich, desktop application can make the same requests of the cloud. And because it's all synced, your rich, desktop application could simply use the current device's local version of the data (using the same REST API, of course), enabling offline access. Software + Services and mash ups from the same interface.

With this in mind, it's easy to see how you would share content amongst friends - simply start synchronising a feed between the two of you. And this is exactly what happens with the current implementation. There's even a feed of activities performed against the data being shared, to which users can add comments.

So, let's run with this, and see what falls out.

Subscribe to Twitter. Subscribe to Facebook. Blogs. Del.icio.us. All of this data is now aggregated, just like FriendFeed.

Take a photo with your phone, that just happens to be a device in the mesh. It automatically gets included into the mesh and flows to all the devices that are sharing that data. Want to publish that photo to Flickr? Create Flickr as a device and it will automatically get published. Someone leaves a comment on Flickr, and since you've subscribed to the Flickr feed, that comment gets synchronised to all devices as metadata associated with the photo.

Generalise that a little. Imagine all of these social networks as devices. All of a sudden your problems with the Centralised Me disappear. You data still lives in the data silo of each social network, but each social network is an integral part of your mesh. You can share the items on your social network, or you can share them from your mesh. Data Portability is less of a problem, because your data doesn't need to be portable; your mesh is a superset of all of these silos.

Want more than the 5 gig of storage Microsoft gives you? Create a device that's backed by Amazon's S3. It's all just feeds and https. In fact, Microsoft are already planning to enable enterprises to replace Microsoft's cloud storage and store data internally.

Subscribe to a feed of bank transactions, using OAuth. Subscribe to all of your banks' feeds and you've got enough data to build a client side aggregator. If the web sites of all the banks can make use of the data in the Mesh (with appropriate security), then every bank has the ability to include aggregator functionality in their site, and they now have an incentive for providing the feed in the first place.

Of course, this is just speculative, but it's easy to see that there is a huge potential to this model. It all depends on how Microsoft handles it. There are several warning signs. Joel pinpoints them quite well in his post "Architecture astronauts take over". Microsoft are really hyping the future of the platform while the current application is not as exciting. (Dare Obasanjo offers a good reply to that post.) And it's still very Microsoft centric. Authentication happens with Windows Live ID, they maintain the index of which devices are in your mesh, and the Live Desktop plays that coordinating role in notifications. People didn't trust Hailstorm, or Passport; will they trust Live Mesh? Will Microsoft allow splitting up of those central services? Logging in via OpenID? Federating the cloud storage? Allowing people to create their own meshes which can interact with Live Mesh services? We'll know more in the Autumn, when Microsoft hold their Professional Developers Conference.

So that's Live Mesh. Boil it down, and it's a deceptively simple premise - it synchronises feeds. The power (and the potential for failure) is the promise that everything is consumable as a feed. Will that happen?

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Those .net dudes have been busy!

by Matt 13. May 2008 14:55

Lordy. Check out ScottGu's blog of the changes in the beta of .net 3.5 SP1! This is way more than a service pack.

Tons of new stuff for the server, ASP.NET, ADO.NET and WCF, Visual Studio has had quite a bit of love but since I'm a closet fan of WPF, it's nice to see Dr Sneath's rundown of the substantial changes on the client side. I'm looking forward to the startup improvements...

And I like the .net Framework Client Profile - they're starting to split up the framework into a desktop version. A download the size of Adobe Reader is a nice way to put it into perspective. And a nice use of Windows Update to drizzle the full framework down in the background. Is this the start of work for getting .net support into Server Core?

Oh, and Greg Schecter covers some of the more interesting uses of the new Effects API.

Surely this can't be a service pack? Shouldn't this be .net 3.6?

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Decentralising Twitter - Centralising Me

by Matt 8. May 2008 18:38

Case in point. Scott Hanselman is looking at an open, distributed implementation of Twitter, and in so doing gives me a great excuse for another example of the illusion of the Centralised Me.

Play along at home.

Twitter is centralised, and so downtime has a massive impact. The data is centralised in their data silos and so it is part of the "Decentralised Me".

If we view Twitter as micro-blogging (another great buzzword), why should I use a 3rd party service when I already have my own blog? I can decentralise Twitter by centralising it on my blog. I've fixed the (service level) downtime problem, and now the data lives in the "Centralised Me".

And you could subscribe to my Tweets (terrible buzzword), and I could publish a list of all the people I was following. But by decentralising the service, I now don't know who's following me (assuming a standard RSS feed subscription - which we of course will decentralise by moving to the centralised FeedBurner service).

Twitter's centralised service provided a whole heap of very important plumbing. Not least of which was usernames. With a centralised list of usernames, I am able to address messages to people. And with a centralised message store, people can be notified when they are addressed by people they aren't following. A decentralised service cannot offer this without additional, dare I say it, centralised infrastructure (think global usernames and semantic search).

Yes, I'm clearly having far too much fun with this.

I just wanted to reinforce what I said last time - centralised and decentralised are simply points of view.

Which means the Centralised Me is either going to be an illusion, like FriendFeed, where your data is aggregated - read copied - from multiple data silos into one new data silo, or it's going to be something much more interesting. How about a data silo that's a superset of all the data silos you've contributed to?

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