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When Islands Become Continents

October 14, 2010

Web sites start out as islands. As they grow, they become big islands. If they get big enough, they can become continents. Facebook is clearly a continent. It has infrastructure. It tries to do all things for all people. Facebook wants you to live there, year round. The site tries to provide all you need to manage your social connections. Apple is also a continent. As Apple has entered the consumer market for music players, phones, and tablets, the company has tried to provide everything we need. If they don’t make it, you don’t need it. Now with projections of 100 million iPads sold in the next two years, Apple’s goal is to make the hardware (and provide the programming platform for application developers) for everything we do. Twitter is now a continent, though much of its surface hasn’t cooled yet and its shape changes constantly. Google is a huge continent – the company wants you to do everything with your Google login. Microsoft is a continent adrift, breaking up quickly. A continent is anything that has more than 50 million users and controls the basic standards that create the environment.

In the physical world, continents are good. They help us collaborate. In the virtual world, continents are not ideal. The Web started with small islands, and today some 70-million-plus bloggers are islands of opinion and observation. Even today’s largest online news sites are still islands, and that’s a good thing. You should be able to mix and match, mash up and filter content the way you want it. Every entrepreneur dreams of world domination, Steve Jobs style, but that’s a 20th century model that won’t work at today’s scale. We don’t need continents. We need islands and bridges that come and go as needed. We need mesh networks – ways for people to come together, join a cause, work on a project, communicate, spread the word, celebrate an event, collaborate, play, trade with each other, and stop doing those things on an as-needed, web-wide basis. We don’t need personal computers. We don’t even need iPads and smart phones. We need the personal data locker and the open web, which will be the platform for the 21st century. By promoting standards and allowing everyone to participate, we will break up the continents and give people the democracy they deserve.

Phil Windley just wrote an interesting blog post about the smart phone turning into the launching pad for the personal data store. As he points out, the shortcomings are obvious – that your information is stored on a single device and doesn’t interact with the rest of the world that easily. But his point is that we are already starting to use services that work with our personal data, and we can iterate our way to the data locker from here. I think it’s one approach, but I envision things working out differently. I think the phone will surely play a role, but today’s “smart phones” aren’t the right model. The good news is that there are already hundreds, if not thousands, of people plotting their own road maps to the personal data locker, giving consumers many choices.

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