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Facebook, Google, and the war to lock you in

Their Own Private Interwebs

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Open...and Shut Facebook isn't necessarily the new Compuserve, and Google might not be angling to be the Hotel California of tech, but all of the big web giants seem intent on locking their users into experiencing a single-vendor web.

Facebook riled users this week by throttling their ability to export their Facebook friends' data for use with Google+ or other services, while Google dumped Twitter from its realtime search in favor of its own Google+. The web as an intersection of seemingly infinite networks threatens to become a limited patchwork of monopolized web experiences that only grudgingly talk with each other.

Not that the web giants are the only ones playing this game. Apple has spent the last few years tying together a seamless hardware/software/web experience that blocks rivals in the interest of "delighting" users. Never mind that Apple's apparent lock on manufacturing processes could well be enough to ensure its lead, the Cupertino giant is also determined to ensure that Apple collects a toll at every step of its users' interaction with iOS devices: hardware (cha-ching!), apps (cha-ching!), media (cha-ching!), and so on.

iCloud, Apple's newest salvo, does nothing to liberate users' data from the tyranny of individual devices, and instead locks them down more than ever, with Steve Jobs holding the key.

As much as I've pooh-poohed the efforts of Diaspora and other open alternatives to the increasingly closed web, it's clear that something must be done to reverse course on this Compuservification of the web. Actually, something already is, but it seems to be taking far too long.

That "something" is competition, and we'll see it evolve from closed-versus-closed to open-versus-closed, with some unlikely adherents of the open (standards/source/APIs) religion. Like Microsoft. Or Google.

Google, of course, is often associated with the open camp, and for good reason. But it seems to have lost its open way of late, and instead apes the worst of Apple and Facebook. Hence, Android has become more closed, and Google Search starts to play favorites rather than algorithms. But my money is still on Google to revive its open approach to computing and the web.

As Google employee Tim Bray writes: "We're working out ways for the people of the future to talk with each other." Bray isn't referring here to Google. His "we" refers to Google and Facebook, and presumably others. Because that's how Google tends to think: not as a monoculture but rather as a connecting point between different networks.

There's simply no way that we will allow ourselves to be corralled into closed communication. Google will be on the side of openness, because its business depends upon it. The trick will be whether it allows its dominance of networking to restrict its users' sociability. That's perhaps a weak play on words, but in a social-network battle with Facebook, Facebook clearly wins on 'social' but Google feels much stronger in 'network'. I and the majority of people I know have a Gmail account, and increasingly use Gtalk for chat.

Facebook messaging still feels like an awkward add-on to the Facebook experience, while in Googleland, messaging is the experience. Now it just needs to get social right, which should feel different from Facebook (as Google+ does): more communication-focused, less news feed–focused. And more willing to interact with other address books, calendar systems, etc.

Microsoft, for its part, is playing catch-up in all this, but underdogs always compete with open strategies, and Microsoft is no different. The question is whether it can buy or build its way back into a fighting position, and not relinquish its interest in open standards at the first brush with victory.

If these companies can't get their open acts together, others are waiting in the wings. Such as Samsung, for example.

Samsung isn't a player on the web, but in the device war for connecting to an open Internet, it's a serious player. The company is minting money on open-source Android, selling three million units of its Galaxy S II smartphone since late April. Samsung has done far better than its hardware competitors in creating Apple-worthy hardware designs while showing surprising finesse in software, as well. The sticking point is whether Samsung's commitment to openness extends beyond an interest in using Android for free. Time will tell. No one out-Apples Apple, so Samsung will either need to embrace openness or play second fiddle to Apple.

And no one out-Facebooks Facebook, for that matter. Perhaps Google should consider taking a dramatic approach to open data by purchasing data-portability startup Singly, former Canonical CTO Matt Zimmerman's new gig, which is still in gestation but promises to give control of user data back to those users. It's a difficult sell for a startup to convince users and developers to embrace the company's data-lockbox approach, but with the backing of Google it becomes much more likely.

That's just one idea, and it may not pan out, but the point is this: real-world social networks are open by design, and the web that translates them into 1s and 0s will need to be open, too. Right now the web giants are competing to close off the web and its social networks as fast as they can, but this is a long-term losing strategy. As impressive as Facebook's reported 750 million user base is today, users will reach a point when the utility of a closed, convenient web is trumped by the power of open networks and open communication.

We may not be there yet, but we're getting there, and the tech giant that gives users an open alternative first will be the one that wins. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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