Months ago, my choice of web-based IM aggregators, Meebo, was purchased by Google and discontinued. Google, like Microsoft before, is deep in the era of purchasing companies for their internal skills and then killing the original product of those skills. I started using Meebo several employers back when the desktop client Digsby was blocked by their IT dept. Digsby had superseded Trillian for me, based on a recommendation from my bro-in-law. I wanted to like the open-source Pidgin but could not. The web-based solutions were ideal for access anywhere (yay, the cloud!), and so I doubt I'll move back to a desktop client. Web-based services can also provide a single archive of all of your conversations. I had used a now-defunct service called Dexrex to archive, but it has since welshed on its promise to provide export and search, and just recently went offline complete (fuck you, cloud!).
After the death of Meebo, I, like many others, moved to imo. It was in many ways better and provided both import and export, including import of the Meebo data. One benefit of having Google buy-then-kill your product: their Data Liberation Front army will make sure its data is retrievable in the most standards-compliant form available. I have a general distrust of loss-of-ownership, and a robust import/export mitigates that. A variation on this is the oddness of Apple forcing users to port their information from MobileMe to iCloud when MM was discontinued. Pretty bold offloading your own internal work to your customers. Imo had been doing its job without much fuss up until last weekend when their connection to Skype's network started failing. It has not yet come back. One theory is that since Microsoft, who purchased Skype, is adding web-based Skype access, they must kill access from other OSes such as Chrome. The removal of Skype from imo has, inexplicably, also removed access to your archived Skype conversation. No word yet on if they will become available again.
These aggregation tools are one of the key concepts behind the web--a system that links services--and walled gardens are a barrier to implementing that concept. There is a trend toward products with no user serviceable parts inside (a la the iPad and Facebook) but it is not necessarily the dominant thread in computer evolution. Wikipedia, open source code libraries, embeddable YouTube videos, embeddable tweets, and RSS are all enablers of that other thread (ignoring the dreaded "Video No Longer Available" static). W/r/t the closed systems: avoid those you can and back up frequently. An easy exit strategy is your plan B.
A years or so ago, I upgraded ye olde home network with new hardware, virtualized the old OSes, and was presented with the decision of whether to move from an email client to web email. My only digital possessions dumped online are Twitter, Flickred pics from our Thailand trip, and a couple of years of bookmarks at Faviki. I ended up continuing to download email. (Oddly, I've gone out of my way to archive IM conversations online, but that's probably because they would otherwise exist across multiple machines.)
It's all an issue of control, and I love that a group of Google employees have created the Data Liberation Front to help ensure that users keep control of their data.
Another area of anti-cloud has been this blog and my development wiki, both hosted on a private server (trusting in the security of a good firewall configuration, frequent software updates, simplicity, and personal unimportance). With a good backup plan, I enjoy being in complete control of my data. Unfortunately, my more public site RadioWave, must reside on a professional web host, and over the past week I've felt the pain of giving up control.
There's been a flurry of anxiety-inducing, loss-of-control-type events with Facebook over the ~24 hours. Both Redmond Pie and Ars Technica had their FB pages taken down by DMCA complaints that contained invalid and false contact information.
Ars is not a fly-by-night operation, so to have them taken down so easily points to a system where oversight is approaching zero. Also on the 28th, coincidentally or not, was an article on Slashdot presenting a proposed approach to crowdsourcing the review of abuse complaints on social networking sites. The proposal recommends building a group of tens-of-thousands of randomly selected reviewers. Whenever an abuse is disputed, 100 of those reviewers would be randomly selected to vote on the dispute. Such an approach would likely eliminate the affect of any sock puppet infiltration into the community, so corporations and governments would not be able to silence unwanted criticism via fraudulent copyright complaints.
On the 15th, the Diaspora code was finally release in alpha and the reviews weren't good. The Register [ via Reddit along with Slashdot ] focused primarily on the dangerously inept security mistakes festering throughout all areas of the code. How bad? They ignore the most basic issue of scrubbing user-submitted data before inserting it into SQL queries. Here's my test for bad security practices: if even I know not to do something, it's bad. This is really bad.
Defenders--justifiably--remark that the fact that Diaspora is open source allows us to discover these flaws and publicize them to be either fixed or act as a warning to users. Closed source applications could contain worse and we'd never know. With Diaspora, Bloggers (such as MicroISV on a Shoestring) can examine the code and detail the full range of the issues involved. More interesting to me, and of greater concern, was an observation from faulteh on Slashdot regarding system requirements:
To be a seed you are going to need a hosting provider that supports ruby on rails with a freakishly huge list of gem dependencies, that is also running the thin webserver - that's right it doesn't work on apache ... In fact, installing all the dependencies on an ubuntu server running a LAMP stack still required an extra 350+Mb of extra packages ...
I haven't seen their concerns voiced elsewhere, and I'm not sure that the extra Ruby and Apache modules required result in as fragile/bloaty a configuration as they suggest. However, when very powerful blog and CMS frameworks can acheive so much with so much less, it suggests that there was a lack of architectural rigor in the decisions made early on in the Diaspora design process. All of these, of course, are minor points that ignore the 800-lb gorilla that Facebook is. What features are needed to make Facebook the next MySpace?
Diaspora (the open source Facebook) launches in two weeks. After learning about Appleseed and several others (listed in my original post), I was less interested in Diaspora. The Best Possible Outcome from all of this, however, would be for these different open source solutions to interoperate by developing a common protocol. I'm sure it's being discussed.
Recent articles on the hopes of an open/open source Facebook alternative:
Linked from comments in the articles, several alternatives are mentioned (alpha-ordered):
The building blocks have been available for a while in the form of email+blog+IM+NNTP with more elaborate image and video sharing achievable using Flickr and YouTube (or similar). I always felt that news sites and blogs should have used NNTP/Usenet servers to manage their comment systems. They use email to send messages. Why reinvent? Over the past five or so years, open protocols have flourished: activitystreams (and other microformats), OAuth and OpenID, FOAF, XMPP, RSS, PubSubHubbub, etc. These could provide the plumbing to create a more seamless social environment than patching together email and a blog and whatever. FriendFeed is an attempt to stitch the disparate sites together, but the result still feels like islands.
I'm not a fan of FB and since the privacy changes I have become less of one (less than "not"?). There's no way I'd allow them to host my personal content, and will never contribute to them. Still, most don't have my choices and most want a more passively connected, pre-populated environment as opposed to islands. Despite Facebook's momentum and user base--and as others have pointed out--MySpace was once considered unbeatable.
[ upated 12 May 2010 ]
Leo Laporte has joined the Diaspora bandwagon [ via RWW ]. Many of the RWW comments remind me of the responses to iPad criticism. It's an odd attitude that you should never talk about the flaws you see in something. Still, interesting to see so many competitors popping up in the same comments to hawk their wares.
[ upated 18 May 2010 ]
Added Appleseed and Xobni. Appleseed is already deep in development and has the same goals as Diaspora.
[ upated 27 Sep 2010 ]
Added BuddyPress, Peerscape, and tribe.net.