Here we go. For years I’ve been talking about how we really need to move the web to a world of protocols instead of platforms. The key concept is that so much of the web has been taken over by internet giants who have built data silos. There are all sorts of problems with this. For one, when those platforms are where the majority of people get their information, it makes them into the arbiters of truth when that should make us quite uncomfortable. Second, it creates a privacy nightmare where hugely valuable data stores are single points of failure for all your data (even when those platforms have strong security, just having so much data held by one source is dangerous). Finally, it really takes us far, far away from the true promise of cloud computing, which was supposed to be a situation where we separated out the data and the application layers and could point multiple applications at the same data. Instead, we got silos where you’re relying on a single provider to host both the data and the application (which also raises privacy concerns).
Despite some people raising these issues for quite some time, there hasn’t been much public discussion of them until just recently (in large part, I believe, driven by the growing worries about how the big platforms have become so powerful). A few companies here or there have been trying to move us towards a world of protocols instead of platforms, and one key project to watch is coming from the inventor of the web himself, Tim Berners-Lee. He had announced his project Solid a while back: an attempt to separate out the data layer, allowing end users to control that data and have much more control over what applications could access it. I’ve been excited about the project, but just last week I commented to someone that it wasn’t clear how much progress had actually been made.
Then, last Friday, Berners-Lee announced that he’s doubling down on the project, to the point that he’s taken a sabbatical from MIT and reduced his involvement with the W3C to focus on a new company to be built around Solid called inrupt. inrupt’s new CEO also has a blog post about this, which admittedly comes off as a bit odd. It seems to suggest that the reason to form inrupt was not necessarily that Solid has made a lot of forward progress, but rather than it needs money, and the only way to get some is to set up a company:
Solid as an open-source project had been facing the normal challenges: vying for attention and lacking the necessary resources to realize its true potential. The solution was to establish a company that could bring resources, process and appropriate skills to make the promise of Solid a reality. There are plenty of examples of a commercial entity serving as the catalyst for an open-source project, to bolster the community with the energy and infrastructure of a commercial venture.
And so we started planning inrupt – a company to do just that. Inrupt’s mission is to ensure that Solid becomes widely adopted by developers, businesses, and eventually … everyone; that it becomes part of the fabric of the web. Tim, as our CTO, has committed his time and talent to the company, and I am delighted to be its chief executive. We also have an exceptional investor as part of the team.
I’m certainly hopeful that something significant comes of this, as it truly is an opportunity to move the internet into that kind of more distributed, less centralized/silo’d world that shows off the true power of the web. I have heard some grousing among some people that this is just Tim Berners-Lee just rebranding the concept of the Semantic Web that he started pushing nearly two decades ago, without any real traction. And, of course, there have been plenty of other attempts over the decades to build these kinds of systems. As it stands right now, there are a few other projects that are getting some traction, including the more distributed social platform Mastodon or some of the ideas that have come out of IndieWeb.
That said, we may finally be entering an era where both users and companies alike are recognizing the benefits of a more distributed web and the downsides of a more centralized one. So it really does feel like there’s an opportunity to embrace these concepts, and it’s good to see the founder of the world wide web ramping up his efforts on this. If it produces real, workable solutions, that would obviously be fantastic, but at the very least if it gets more people just thinking about these concepts, that would also be useful. So, this should be seen as big news for anyone concerned about the powers of the largest internet companies (especially if you’re skeptical about government trying to step in to deal with those companies when they don’t know what they’re doing). While the details and implementation will matter quite a bit, it’s exciting to see more movement towards a world in which the data layer is not just separated out, but where end users will be able to fully control that layer themselves, and potentially choose which apps can access what (and for how long). It certainly opens up a real opportunity to bring back the early promise of a truly decentralized web… and that would be a web built on protocols rather than centralized, silo’d platforms.
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