First essay of the year
Monday, January 6, 2003 by Dave Winer.
I still owe you an essay to kick off the new year.
At the beginning of each year I look forward. Some years I nail it, but most years, hmmm -- well, it's a good exercise. ;->
Thanks to Professor Lawrence Lessig of Stanford for being my foil in writing this essay. We had an extended email conversation at the beginning of 2003, last week, while I was in NY and he was in Japan. Much of the copy here is edited snippets from that conversation.
I hope I'm not being presumptuous in saying that Lessig and I have become friends over the last year. Our discussions have been heated at times but I think perhaps we're fighting for the same thing -- respect for people, to keep the new medium from being owned the way previous media were, by companies that seek to control it.
The Web uniquely wants to be used by everyone, not just for the purposes of big companies and their profits and paranoia. This is a foundation that I think we agree on.
Here's what I see at the beginning of 2003.
We've reached a milestone in our journey of technology to the Two-Way-Web. All the basic ingredients are in place. The back-end systems are maturing, with lots of choice for users. The XML-RPC interfaces are also maturing and (more important) standardizing.
We went a lot further with the ManilaRPC interface, and the Edit This Page button, the key innovation in Manila, still hasn't appeared in other mass-market CMSes -- but I have no doubt the interfaces will deepen, and the convenience for users will increase, and the content systems will do more of the work.
Another innovation waiting in the wings -- OPML directories. It's the next step after blogrolls.
The wizzy editing tools are coming from all corners, all platforms, mobile and desktop, you name it, someone is working on wiring it up to the content network defined by the MetaWeblog API.
Further, we have settled the outage in RSS, again with choice. People who like RDF are able to use that, at a cost in confusion, but that was factored in already. We got the features and extensibility we wanted in RSS 2.0. If there's any more work to do there it's just clarification or cleanup.
In summary, the interfaces will deepen, the tools will keep coming, the back-ends will support the tools. Aggregators will be able to depend on more data in the RSS feeds.
The next challenge is spreading the gospel. There we have just begun.
So far the focus has been on weblogs for journalists and would-be journalists, leading to the question about how we make money with weblogs. This is very important, and I don't want to minimize it, but there are other important questions to ask.
If a weblog is used by a workgroup to keep the members informed, and to connect with other workgroups; and if their feeds are aggregated to inform shareholders, management, regulators, and other interested parties, you might measure the money-making in the form of money saved, or shortcuts found, or new ideas discovered, or blind alleys averted. Weblogs have a place in business that's as strong as their place in decentralizing news gathering and reporting.
And there's more. Imagine a weblog for each patient in the hospital. Each patient defines a community, the people who want to know what's going on and how the guy is doing. I know my friends and family would have found that useful when I was hospitalized last summer. I certainly wouldn't have minded them having the information (although I'd want to control who could access this particular weblog).
How about weblogs for political candidates, and weblogs for citizen activist groups to get corrupt or incompetent politicians out of the way. Weblogs for every cellphone user in the third world (and the first and second too).
Recently a reporter asked me if all this michegas about weblogs isn't just the Web, and I said of course it is. The first website, done by Tim Berners-Lee was a weblog in every sense of the word. All we're doing is lowering the barrier, making it easier to get in. That's a big deal of course, but in another sense, it's the same thing again and again, every year for the last decade, and each time through the loop it's bigger, because it gets easier.
A survey of new stuff for 2003 would be incomplete without mentioning mobile weblogging, or moblogging, a term identified by Joi Ito, another new friend, also in Japan.
Joi is very excited about this and so are we. Imagine a small computer, a cellular telephone with a headset, and a standard qwerty keyboard, hooked up to an instant messaging network and to your weblog. To post a new item to your community, hit the Blog Post button and start typing. Hit ## to submit. Bing.
The MetaWeblog API is sufficient to make this work. Just add a simple XML-RPC stack in the cellphone and a developer toolkit and we'll do the rest. To license the software, a cellphone provider should expect to pay the equivalent of two or three engineering salaries for a few years.
I was talking with a computer user a few days ago, a lawyer -- a person who makes a lot of money billing by the hour, and even though people complain about how much his time costs, they pay. He's a rich guy, and he gets richer every year.
Now, I wasn't selling my software to him, I was just telling him what it does, and how there are lots of lawyers discovering it, and how much I enjoy working with lawyers, and after I got through about five sentences he interrupted me and asked the question I knew was coming -- Is it open source? He added that he would never use software that wasn't open source.
So I told him it wasn't and further he would have to wait a lot of years, maybe forever, before I would give him the software I make for free, because I have to make a living, and pay lawyers and accountants, and I have a mortgage, and health insurance, and maybe (god forbid) get a vacation every few years or so (I know I'm unreasonable), and someday I'm going to retire or maybe need long-term health care; and btw the people who make open source software generally don't have much sympathy for users, and my software is all about users.
Anyway, he was a reasonable person, so the conversation swung around to what he really wanted, and it got productive. Assume you can't get what you want (assuming you want to always be able to use open source). What would you settle for? Because it may be the flipside of what I think are the ethical requirements of being a software developer. I strongly believe there are ethical rules, we just have never written them down or even discussed them. It involves not locking users in. Giving them choice. Telling them what the risks are in using the software. Never installing persisting components without clear notice to the user. It's not what the UCITA says it is, there's more to it, and less.
BTW, the conversation I describe above never took place. It's an amalgam of dozens of conversations I've had over the years, not just with lawyers.
What if the computer running your weblog died?
What would happen to your writing?
If you're lucky, it's your machine, you control it -- so if you want to keep a copy of your own stuff, maybe use it for a book you're writing, you can. But do you know how? And many if not most of the people who keep weblogs these days do not control the machine, and are in no position to demand access to their own writing.
This was one of the reasons we had a personal computer revolution -- so that people could gain control of their own work. This recognized that people don't stay in the same job forever, and sometimes use the employer's computer for personal work, and also that people have some ownership in their own creativity even if it was paid for by someone else, even if the ownership is only psychic. As an employer I've had to deal with this, and as an employee (at times) I've demanded it.
This is much more important than having access to the source of the program, a program must give you complete control of your content, and for that, you must be able to get a copy. And you must be able to use some other piece of software to read it, that's why interchange formats and protocols are so important.
PS: CMS stands for Content Management System.