Netizen Developer

soldier iconThere is a low grade market war going on in web augmentation services, part of a huge shift in how developers and users perceive the web.

The Web used to be about pages, then applications, followed by mashups. Today the interesting action is in augmentation.

The leading edge of the Web first moved from static pages to database-driven applications, where user interactions dynamically changed the presentation of content. That is rapidly giving way to multi-site mash-ups and interconnections through APIs and webhooks that, for example, allow one to dynamically use Flickr pictures elsewhere, allow Twhirl post to Twitter, and allow users log in to new websites with their Yahoo! ID.

dreamstime_3686556glowing-jigsaw-piecessmallThe mashup/API culture knows that not every website can be the best at everything. Instead, mash up those that are the best into custom-combined web pages.  The shift away from monolithic webservices  began here, applying applied multi-source content to a centralized experience. It was still predicated on users visiting a central website, but it was a start at redefining the perspective from which the web should be constructed.

Web augmentation takes that one step further, moving the locus of control into the browser.

It changes the context of value from a website with widgets on webpages, to capability that travels with the user to every web page they visit, improving the user experience no matter where they go. This enables multi-source/multi-destination content with a distributed, yet integrated experience.

Instead of integrating mashups at the point of the “hosting” web page, augmentation integrates at the point of the user, through the browser, while users visit anywhere online. Moving towards truly user driven services, web augmentation gives priority to the user’s experience rather than website owners’ goals.

For example,

  • Ad blockers remove ads from web pages, anywhere
  • Pop-up blockers stop annoying javascript pop-up windows
  • SkypeOut turns any phone number found in a web page to a button that launches Skype to call that number
  • Google Toolbar’s AutoLink button automatically links addresses to online maps, package tracking numbers to delivery status, VIN numbers (US) to vehicle history, and publication ISBN numbers to Amazon.com listings.
  • Adaptive Blue’s Glue uses a “topbar” to augment pages with social context about the content of the page you are on: friends’ reviews, recent visitors comments, etc.

As I wrote about previously, Kynetx is also getting into this game, as is Azigo with their RemindMe service. I like both Kynetx and Azigo. I know the folks behind those efforts and believe they are “fighting the good fight”, using user-centric identity to provide advanced and improved user experiences.  SwitchBook is also a web augmentation service, one which doesn’t rely on modifying web pages as Ad Blockers, SkypeOut, and Kynetix allow; we use a toolbar approach more like Adaptive Blue.

It’s a matter of being a good netizen.

One great thing about the Internet is that anyone can use it. And once you enable a capability on the Internet, anyone can do it. Then, when successful, everyone will do it.

So the social ethics question we have to ask ourselves as developers is “What if everyone does do it?”

What if everyone adopts Ad Blockers? What if all my desktop apps try to modify phone numbers on web pages? What if everyone writes web augmentation services that amend, inject, and otherwise manipulate the web pages we see online?

It isn’t about legal questions—which is apparently what killed Microsofts “SmartTags” initiative.

data and globeIt comes down to a question of open systems. Open systems that work, work when everyone does it, because that’s where you get game-changing economies of scale. The network effect only happens if the value of the system increases when more and more people use it and open systems are all about the network effect.

  • What happens if everyone uses TCP/IP?  WhoohoO! Seamless interconnected networks.
  • What if everyone uses SMTP, POP, and IMAP?  Yes! You can email anyone, anywhere, anytime!
  • What if every company, government agency, and organization uses HTML and http to build online services for their users? Mega efficiency. 24 hour engagement. Low-cost quick answers. Happier people and happier organizations.

Those are good open systems.

But what about these?

What if everyone were to use ad-blockers to completely block every ad they see online, banners and text–everything?  Google would go out of business. The New York Times online would have to go back to a paywall. Vast chunks of the online content business would collapse, because those same ads are what pay the bills.

board room attackWhat if every company that wanted to “augment” your web experience started inserting content, buttons, and javascript into web pages? Even assuming the augmentation is only done by those services you trust and appreciate—just those companies or organizations or movements that you want to help you—if we restrict the augmentation to just those firms, we still have a veritable cacophony of conflicting augmentations. What happens when your library, Borders.com, your favorite local bookstore, all want to “augment” a listing of 1984 by George Orwell? And I haven’t event started on the list of folks wanting to tell you about movie versions, plays, online videos, derivative works, Wikipedia articles, and discussion groups about the book.

Sure, one or two million people using ad blockers isn’t going to put anyone out of business. Nor will the first few intrusive web augmenters. That’s not the point. The point is, how do we build systems that not only work when everyone uses them, but actually gain in value when that happens?

As netizen developers, we have an obligation not just to do what makes us money, or even what makes users happy, but to build systems that work at Internet scale, when everyone does it.  If the systems we build don’t work when everyone tries to get into the game, then we are just being selfish, hording value just because we are first-to-market.

Think about pop-up blockers. On the one hand, pop-up blockers break certain websites. Especially, it seems, sites keen on opening windows for editing or sending a message. So, pop-up blockers aren’t the ideal solution… there is friction for users when people choose to use them. Yet, ask the netizen developer question and the answer is pretty straightforward. “What if everyone used pop-up blockers?” Sites that currently use pop-up windows would redesign to work within the browser rather than popping out new windows. In fact, most of the economic friction with pop-up blockers is in the middle-way, with just some users using them and others not. Arguably, the world would be a better place if everyone were to use pop-up blockers. So pop-up blockers aren’t ethically problematic, rather, they are an incomplete solution to a tricky problem.

paper dolls holding handsBeing a good netizen requires thinking about these issues, just as being a good citizen means thinking about how private actions affect the public good. To build out this next generation of identity-enabled web augmentation services, we would all do well to think through what happens when everyone does it.

Finally, although Adaptive Blue and SwitchBook both use a toolbar approach to augmentation—without manipulating the underlying web pages— similar issues challenge us as we aim for Internet scale. There are only so many toolbars users will install. Each is borrowing screen real estate from the core web experience. This gets even worse when you consider the possibility of augmenting web experiences in a mobile device. The mind boggles at that challenge.

Ultimately, what we need is an open system that allows all of these types of augmentations from Adaptive Blue, SwitchBook, Kynetx, Azigo, Google, Skype, and others, to mingle smoothly in the same interface.

handshakeWe (SwitchBook) haven’t begun to solve that problem, but we look forward to working with the rest of the open community to figure out how to make it work. At the end of the day, the collection of interfaces and services that provide the most value to users is going to win. Everything between here and there is just wasted development dollars, even if it generates millions in profits for those fighting the tide.

In an open world, the best solution eventually rises to the top. Let’s see if we can speed that up and stop wasting money on closed, proprietary, unscalable solutions.

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