But now I’m starting to think we’ll soon be facing another additional challenge.
Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Tencent, Ant and a small army of second-rankers all rely on a ubiquitous internet. I worry that the lesson they will take from outages like this is that they need to re-work this hodge-podge of hippy protocols into something more respectable—something more closely resembling them.
Microsoft tried to do this in the late ‘90s with its infamous 'Embrace, Extend, Extinguish’ approach to internet standards. They’d take things like HTML, the markup language that your browser is using right now to display these words, and kiiinnnda support it. That is, they’d cover the basics, but they’d add some special sauce of their own in an effort to separate themselves from the herd, and make people rely on their software.
They didn’t win
. And that is amazing, when you consider how heavily stacked in their favour the odds seemed to be.
Instead we got Linux, an entire operating system that you’re probably using some part of, either on your phone, on the server that’s delivering this content, or on your Mac, if you swing that way.
We got Free and Open Source Software, stuff that runs on Linux (and dozens of other OSes), that’s mostly free of charge to use, customise and contribute to.
We got a remarkable flowering of creativity and cooperation that made this connected world possible.
But that is in the early stages of decline. We continue to use Linux and FOSS, but companies are drifting away from it, or compromising it by mixing in non-free extensions.
They were always a little leery of the Free-as-in-Freedom thing. (“Yeah, but what do we own??” a boss of mine once asked.)
So Android is becoming estranged from its Linux parent. Microsoft, who once described Linux as ‘a cancer’, is now selling integration tools designed to… embrace and extend Linux into a Windows-friendly space. Android phone makers are finding new an inventive ways to stop people installing their own software on them.
Companies valued in the trillions are basing their revenue streams on inserting themselves into literally every interaction we have with the outside world.
Where in the past the internet promised DISintermediation—getting rid of the brick-and-mortar middleman—now the main services are entirely predicated on mediation. Literally all they do is glue human interactions together in a way that simplifies and amplifies the attention humans crave.
They don’t want us sharing with others, they want us sharing with them. Sharing without them is competition, and competition is The Other.
It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen completely, but I think the lesson some companies will take from outages like this, and from the technical success of China’s efforts to mediate the lives of its citizens, is that control is essential to survival.
Facebook has the power to do this today. For a large swathe of the developing world, no Facebook == no internet.
Zuck knows it. The question is whether the company will have its Murdoch moment and unrepentantly embrace, extend and extinguish the internet that gave birth to it, or whether it will allow itself to be embraced and eaten in its turn.
Knowing what we know
about that gang, I’d say they’ll make a play for option 1. And I suspect that Google and Amazon will play along long enough for things to get dangerous.