Why? Well, today's crop of online services really disappoint the user in all sorts of ways, namely:
- They tend to lack freedom. The user should have rights to their data (escrow services, downloadable in useful formats without loss of information) and choices in hosting (which implies open standards and open implementations). This is something that even people outside the tech industry understand: talking with a financial advisor recently who was quite enthused about the possibility of things like Google Docs, I was impressed when he noted he couldn't ever seriously use them because of a lack of guarantees to his data and privacy.
- They are usually stuck in the browser. The social networking crew wants us to use the web browser (or a browser on our phone) because it's convenient for them. Not because it's a great experience, but because it's easy. Those are the wrong priorities.
- The innovation essentially stopped at "things I used to do on paper". I want to do more than just have an easy place to dump my embarrassing photos of others from last night, keep up a public journal, read an annotated map or exchange small blocks of text with othes. I want the network to make my computing life more interesting, more immersive and more useful. The innovation has all but dried up in social networking, however, and what we have is an electronic version of the library and post office. A really freaking cool library and post-office, but that's about it. We can do better than that, can't we?
There are very few shining stars that buck this trend, and even then they often fall down by not offering things like data escrow or a richer user experience. They do deserve credit, though: Wikipedia, OpenStreetmap, identi.ca .. (does Gitorious fit in here? Hmmmm.) They should only be our beginning, however.
This is where an opportunity for Free software lies. Our strength is community. We understand it, we are driven by it, we eat and breath it. We don't need to find financial justifications for trying new things out and we have an entire stack of software (that goes waaaay beyond "stuff I used to do on paper") to play with. There are only two companies I can think of that come even close to breadth we have there, and neither of them can match our agility, freedom to experiment or respect for the values that make social groups thrive.
We have all the pieces coming together to create computing experiences that take into consideration the context of the person's location and concentration, their social/professional lives, their personal and shared information and reflect that in a myriad of ways in all of our interfaces, not just the web browser. Imagine being able to take your netbook into the lecture hall and have it switch to the "right" activity on screen, broadcast a widget to the class room and locate which students aren't there (maybe including a note from them explaining why). Imagine being able to walk into a train station and grabbing the train schedule on the device of your choice, finding you're stuck for the night, asking who that you know is in the area and then prodding one of them for a ride or some company to pass the evening hours away. Imagine being able to recommend a friend on one social network to a friend on a completely different social network without any interoperability weirdness. Imagine being able to sync your online data, leave with it (maybe working on it a bit), then re-sync it back later to a different provider.
In this world, I see our computers becoming helpers rather than mildly frustrating tools; I see services becoming a true web of interacting greatness rather silos with the occasional rickety handmade (and often one-way) rope bridge between them; I see "social networking" and "personal rights and freedoms" being mutually supporting at every level.
This is the "Social Desktop" that Frank spoke about at last year's Akademy, and which many others have been buzzing about in one form or another for some years. It was high time that we stopped talking about it and started doing it. So Frank started with outlining a set of Open Collaboration Services (OCS) and then implementing them in his popular *-look.org and *-apps.org community websites. Those specs are open: people can implement them, people can use them client-side and people can help evolve the specifications and implementations.
Cornelius implemented a KDE library to access them, as he's had a long standing interest in socializing software. (I believe this was one of the reasons he began working on KOrganizer waaay back, in fact.) Then Sebastian and Marco got to work, and now we have a budding set of applications for people to use. You can geolocate people near you in your network (or who are publicly available), you can browse and interact with an online knowledgebase that's very wiki-style and more.
This is very early days, however, and I fully expect this world and Nepomuk's local information stores to start intersecting in applications in interesting and fun ways, our geolocation systems to be come ever more useful/integrated, more devices and more possible opportunities with fewer compromises (e.g. "I want to work collaboratively on a slide presentation .. but I can either use a good rich client app or a far less powerful and useful web app. *sob*") and a User's Bill of Rights to emerge much as the GPL did for software code bases.
We can, by taking advantage of the Social Desktop concepts in our server, web and rich client software, take the whole social networking world to a new plateau that includes more invention, less lock-in and lock-out, better user experiences and freedom. This is a vision that has something in it for everyone in F/OSS: server, infrastructure, web, embedded, desktop ...
Ok, enough of the excited ranting from me. This is potentially big stuff and I'm happy that we are finally at the point that we are moving to implementation. There is so much to do and so many more ideas to be had and then realized.
To help push this all along a little bit further, Frank has initiated a contest for OCS implementations which you can read more about on his blog. I can't wait to see the entrants, and I'm extremely excited that the jury panel is so diverse: KDE, GNOME, OpenOffice and OpenDesktop are all represented.
Help us build the future of social/contextual computing by co-imagining it with us: enter the OCS contest and let's get to making the social networks and contextual computing experiences the world ought to have .. and lots of them. :)