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Advice for Chris Messina

Tuesday, October 07, 2008 by Dave Winer.

A picture named sink1.jpgIf you're interested in how formats and protocols evolve on the web, you might want to listen to Steve Gillmor's interview of Chris Messina on yesterday's Gillmor Gang.  Permalink to this paragraph

I used to do roughly what Chris does, but I got tired of all the kitchen sinks being thrown at me because of my success from people who work at big tech companies. They have all kinds of techniques for thwarting success, but one simple motive, as I've come to understand it. Permalink to this paragraph

All big tech companies are basically the same inside, they all have too many people so they expend a lot of energy fighting with each other over who has the right to do this or that. There's always someone looking over your shoulder for a sign that you're blowing it, so they can tell someone at a higher level in management about your failure, so they can snatch the project for themselves.  Permalink to this paragraph

When an independent developer such as Chris or myself is introduced to this mess, it's usually at the behest of someone very high up the structure of the big tech company because we tend to be visible to the outside world, relative to the typical grunt inside the BigCo. Our visibility and our introduction by the TopGuy immediately breeds resentment -- before they even meet you they don't like you, or worse, are committed to your failure. And while there may be penalties for hitting someone inside the corporate hierarchy, there's no penalty for offing the outsider. Inside the company they're playing a big game of musical chairs, but we outsiders can't play -- there's no mechanism whereby we can get a chair. Permalink to this paragraph

A picture named sink2.jpgBut no one lays it out for us this clearly. It takes years of trying to work with the BigCo's to figure out that while the TopGuy smiles and shakes our hand at conferences, and maybe even says kind things about us in a press release, there is zero chance that the people who actually make the decisions, the Ouija board of all the engineers and their managers, will work with us.  Permalink to this paragraph

I should say almost zero instead of zero. I've had two examples of times when BigTechCos said they were working with me, and really did do the work, and several examples outside the tech industry, in publishing. In one case, with XML-RPC in 1998, it was because a handful of engineers who really were mavericks (unlike John McCain who just throws spitballs from the back of the room) and believed in something, and were respected enough inside Microsoft to cut through the corporate bullshit, but only for a very short period of time (really just two or three weeks). The machine eventually clamped down and turned it into a mess, owned by the W3C and IBM, Sun, and 18,000 other BigCos and BigCo-wannabes.  Permalink to this paragraph

The other example was RSS, which only worked because the company I was working with, Netscape, evaporated into thin air in the middle of the project! So, if after getting a TopGuy to go for it, somehow you're lucky enough that the company self-destructs, you actually can get something done with a BigCo. ;-> Permalink to this paragraph

A picture named sink3.jpgI recognize from Chris's rap on the GG podcast that he gets something important that most BigCo guys don't. The question, asked by the BigCo guy, isn't why invent another way to do standards, that's what Lakoff calls "framing" -- assuming something in the question that isn't actually what's going on. You don't start out trying to create a standard (and I'd encourage Chris to drop the word from his vocabulary) -- what you want to do is make a product, and allow others to compete with you, so you aren't locking your users in. That's the virtue of the development process Chris and his buddies are advocating. If a standard pops out, it happens later in the process. Permalink to this paragraph

Chris is an idealist and it's good to have them around, for sure. And it's also good to think of his work as the proving ground for standards work at the IETF and W3C that will come later, but unfortunatley I'm pretty sure they don't see it that way. When it comes time to reinvent OAuth they will probably try to break it. I say try, because if you play it right they won't be able to.  Permalink to this paragraph

So my advice to Chris is, if it isn't already obvious, don't explain why the BigCos aren't following your lead, shrug your shoulders and let them do the explaining. Eventually if you do your job well, they will follow, they'll have to. They will never follow out of the goodness of their hearts, because (sorry to say) that's not what they do. Permalink to this paragraph

Update: RSS.com is for sale, minimum bid $500K. Oy. Permalink to this paragraph


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A picture named dave.jpgDave Winer, 53, pioneered the development of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining, and web content management software; former contributing editor at Wired Magazine, research fellow at Harvard Law School, entrepreneur, and investor in web media companies. A native New Yorker, he received a Master's in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, a Bachelor's in Mathematics from Tulane University and currently lives in Berkeley, California.

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