Killring Rick Dillon's Weblog

The Dangerous Trend Towards Centralization

Gina Trapani shared a post from Brian Shih, who used to be a product manager for Google Reader. To provide some context, Google Reader has been the dominant RSS reader for just about six years, garnering an extremely strong but limited following (inherent in the genre; RSS is not used by the majority of web surfers).

Reader recently underwent a redesign. The majority of users evaluated it on its aesthetic merits, though users that made extensive use of keyboard shortcuts and for whom sharing was an integral part of the Google Reader experience noticed that the sharing functionality was altered significantly to bring the product more in line with Google Plus. As a result, the changes have impacted users to varying degrees. Some users simply don't understand what the big deal is, others complain about the whitespace that is now more prevalent than ever, and yet others (myself among them) complain about the nerfed sharing functionality, especially that which is accessible via keyboard shortcuts. Because users use Google Reader differently, the changes have had varied impact on them.

This post isn't about any of that.

Rather, when I step back and evaluate what has happened, I'm reminded about the fundamental flaw in Google's strategy, and the fundamental flaw in cloud computing. All the trends in computing are moving away from a world in which the user has control, and towards a model in which the user is merely a consumer.

Consider web applications. These are often touted as the replacement for desktop applications, offering many advantages, like seamless upgrades, a globally distributed network of backups, and accessibility across a wide variety of devices.

Consider app stores. Users are herded into obtaining the programs for their computing devices from fenced off stores, the virtues of which are lauded widely: higher average app quality, reduction of malware, and, again, seamless upgrades.

Consider email. This one is a bit more subtle, but the reason that the original web applications (email, IRC, usenet, websites) were successful was that they were federated. In simple terms, that means that anyone could run their own email server and communicate with anyone else that ran an email server. It was, in essence, peer-to-peer. The same is true of IRC, usenet, and websites. But today, we have consolidated providers that the vast majority of users flock to. The modern day killer apps aren't IRC or usenet, but social networks, and those have emerged in the form of Facebook, an enormous walled garden. Efforts have been made to make a federated version of Facebook (see Appleseed and Disapora), but none have made significant inroads. Users' data is being removed from their control, and in most cases, they don't even know it.

When we remove control from users, we remove the option for them to retain the tools they like, instead forcing them to "upgrade" to whatever new version is deemed "better". This model works very well when the dictator is benevolent. It works best when the code for the tools is open, and can be forked into new versions when the official version is not desirable to a large group of users. But what about when the dictator making the changes is malevolent (i.e. the service provider's interests don't align with the customers' interests), and the code is not available? In those cases, which are the vast majority, the users are locked in, and without recourse.

In the case of Google Reader, I think the changes are bearable, but I also have found two backup solutions that run under my control that can replace it (NewsTicker and RSS2Email). Neither offer the exact same functionality, but they both offer good aggregation of a wide variety of news sources via RSS.

But that's not really the point. The point is that, for many users, the model in which the corporations make decisions for them is optimal. Many users don't want to worry about the detail of running or maintaining these services. But the health of the entire ecosystem is dependent on the minority being able to choose for themselves. And that means a move away from cloud services and towards federated, open source tools. Consider the impact email has had on the growth of the net. It is the first and most basic service every citizen has on the Internet, and we take it for granted. We need to consider what properties made email so successful, and mirror them in other services that we believe should be taken for granted.