Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Future of Computing

or

Nobody pwns Wikipedia

So is the death knell sounding for Wikipedia? Tim O'Reilly thinks so; so does New Scientist magazine.

O'Reilly is a tech writing rock star and New Scientist is sharp as hell. They're both wrong, but I'll get to that.

Basically, the argument goes like this:


1.



The market demands "steady" (exponential) growth from its companies. This means even after a company has expanded to fill its initial market, it has to keep growing.

In a lot of cases, these companies start competing with (and sometimes crushing) their suppliers. Barnes & Noble is now a large producer of trade publications. (See vertical integration.)

O'Reilly: Ever since I heard Bill Janeway point out that over time, Wall Street "firms began to trade against their clients for their own account, such that now, the direct investment activities of a firm like Goldman Sachs dwarf their activities on behalf of outside customers," I thought, whither Google, Yahoo! and Amazon?


2.



Who's Google's biggest content supplier? Which site shows in the top listings for half the bloody words in the English language? Wikipedia.

Google's already displaying its own content -- you can look up weather forecasts, movie listings, unit conversions -- and they all show right at the top of the search results. So long, wunderground. And now that Google's making a Wikipedia competitor...

Anil Dash:

Google's announcement of Knol shows that they understand some of their key business drivers very well; With as much as 5% of the search result links for popular terms going to Wikipedia pages, a solution to capturing some of that traffic in an environment that Google can control and display ads on makes good business sense...



3. ProfitThe end is nigh!



O'Reilly:

Ultimately, I think we see this pattern in the economic development of every innovation. When a new technology is introduced, there's a lot of green-field opportunity, and so much value is being created that there's no need to capture it all. But as the technology matures, the winners need to capture more of the total value being created. They gradually crowd out suppliers as well as competitors.

[...]

And like Jen, I wish that we could fight the trend by the choices we make, but I'm not sanguine. The only way that this kind of trend gets reversed is via a new technology giving us a "do over" (as the PC did with the mainframe market, and the internet did with the PC.) You get a period of innovation and openness for a while, till the winners start taking more value than they create.


The subtext is gloom. Wikipedia, despite its sprawling web presence, is tiny. It's an amateur-driven, cash-strapped organization struggling hard just to keep its servers running -- nevermind testing for usability or keeping felons out of the finance room. How can it survive direct competition with the 500-billion-dollar gorilla?




Here's why O'Reilly and New Scientist are wrong.


1. Google has not filled its niche.

Not by a long shot. Let's take another look at the mission statement:

Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.


It doesn't say anything in there about websites or links. Nor does it mention making a fuckload of money by delivering precisely targeted advertising, though that was and continues to be almost all of Google's revenue.

The best way for tech companies to grow is to create new markets -- the iPod, for example, allowed Apple to swoop out of the whole Windows vs. Mac battle (and they didn't even have to be evil to do it).

So what fertile fields will Google colonize?

Well, sitting in front of a computer sort of sucks, doesn't it? You can read about woodpeckers all you like, but it's a barren existence if you never see one. You can't flirt well, or punch someone, or get served food over TCP/IP. Not even on Skype.

So the smart money is on portability:

You're hungry. You want a place to eat. You go to your [smart device]. It could be a cell phone. It could be a Nokia N800 like device. Yes, it could be built into your car like your existing GPS mapping device. It already knows where you are (and shows your position on the default screen). You query (not through a web browser, but an integrated interface) for a nearby fast food restaurant. With me so far? You didn't go to a web page Yahoo! Local or Google Maps. Your map application was built into the device.

Quite a number of nearby locations pop up on your map. But there are a few bolded map selections. Arby's has free desert with any meal purchase. Bill & Ruth's sub shop has a discount of $1 towards any sandwich. And some small pizza place you never heard of has a 2-for-1 special. And then there are quite a number of other choices.

How did those bolded deals get there? Some large company built up the infrastructure required to run a service where any advertiser (major corporation or little mom-and-pop shops) could put in advertisements at a local level. They've got the transaction engine necessary to take and bill for advertisements. (That would be an existing online advertising company.) They've got the scale to do this on a nationwide (or even worldwide) basis. They've got a yellow pages database. They've got a way to deliver this to consumers.

Google doesn't have all the pieces yet. But they're assembling them. Adsense is going to start allowing location based advertising. (I wish I kept my reference for that.) They're working on an integrated delivery platform to get that to you (Gphone). They practically have all the pieces in place, and they're working towards the goal of making this happen.


This is the future of computing. The New York Times asked a bunch of people to predict what NYC would be like in 2108, and alongside some silliness, a computer science professor said:

In the same way we now have enhancements like pacemakers, it’s reasonable to suppose that in a hundred years everyone’s eyes will be implanted with tiny displays. All the information we need about the city will be accessible to us without conscious effort: where to go, what to buy, when the next subway will arrive, how to hook up with friends. We’ll be able to see a virtual reality superimposed over the physical grid.

This city is all about intensity of purpose and connections, and technology will only make it more efficient and more fluid. And in a city that is so multicultural, communication will be easier. A hundred years from now, you and I could be having a conversation in two languages and translation would be automatic. I could look at a newspaper written in any language and have the translation superimposed on my vision.

Being in the same room with people, looking in their eyes, touching them — this will still be important. But when people come together, there will be a lot more information at their fingertips and floating in the air between them.


So Google doesn't need to compete with Wikipedia. Their business projection for the next fifty years lies somewhere between obscenely successful and totalitarian post-apocalyptic robot rule. (The stock price reflects this.)


2. Knol isn't capable of killing Wikipedia.

Despite the hype, everything indicates Google isn't taking Knol all that seriously. Here's a test: go to googleblog. Push cmd/ctrl+F. Type "knol". How many results are there? (One, for me, and it's just a link back to the original knol announcement.)

Hell, they didn't even buy a domain name for it -- Knol.com belongs to a German hardware company!

And even if Google decided to go balls-to-the-wall against Wikipedia, there are some things money can't buy. Microsoft couldn't kill the iPod because Microsoft is bad at making simple devices. AOL couldn't leverage its user base into general domination because AOL is bad at ... well, everything.

Google is bad at social websites. (When you only hire programming geniuses, nobody on your workforce understands how ordinary people think.) Orkut's been around for years, but it got crushed by 2 competitors (myspace and facebook) that started from financial and pagerank poverty. Somebody said that if Jacob Nielson ran a bar, it would be well-lit, have plenty of comfortable seats, and be completely empty.

(For Google's latest social networking misstep, see Google Reader shares private data, ruins Christmas.)


3. Nobody owns Wikipedia.

If you go into Barnes & Noble and look at their vertically-integrated trade books, there's ownership everywhere. B&N owns the physical book (or you do, if you buy it) and the shelf it sits on. The author owns the language ('til death, plus 70 years, do them part). The employees are there because they get paid, and if someone stops paying them, they'll leave.

If Vladamir Putin decided to empty his swiss bank account and buy B&N, he'd own every copyright that B&N owns. He'd own every physical book, every store ('cept the vassal franchises), every warehouse. He could have them all leveled, or put little furry hats on them, or whatever.

But Putin couldn't buy Wikipedia, even if he purchased all the servers and domains. Even if he co-opted Jimmy Wales with a deftly orchestrated blackmail and snaked operatives into the WMF's corridors.

That's confusing the coffee and the cup -- wikipedia.org is the container, and it's in a specific location. But nobody owns Wikipedia-the-encyclopedia. It's free.

It doesn't matter how insular or bureaucratic its administration gets -- the project can be forked. It doesn't matter how many times your favorite article gets deleted -- it's still there, on the server and on a million distributed hard disks. Every version of it. Ask for someone to give it back to you and they have to oblige, because that's what GFDL means.

(That's why I don't understand when people say Veropedia "steals Wikipedia's content". You can't steal Wikipedia's content any more than you can patent the sun. It doesn't matter that a Veropedia article isn't at Wikipedia.org -- when you're reading Veropedia, you're reading Wikipedia. It's the same as if I printed out a Wikipedia article and stuck it on my fridge, or shouted it at someone -- it's still wikipedia; it's just delivered differently.)

What's the worst that could possibly happen? Everyone starts reading Wikipedia articles on a Google page? Who cares? Google creates an immensely successful competitor? It'll have to be free-licenced to compete. Let's go further. What if Google stopped indexing Wikipedia completely? A bunch of full-content mirrors would spring up, too many to be blocked.

If Wikipedia can't be owned, it can't be bought or bankrupted. It doesn't play by the rules of capitalism.

That would make a good bumper sticker: Nobody pwns Wikipedia.

1 comment:

llywrch said...

Good answer to Tim O'Reilly, Ben. I read his essay, and his premise only makes sense if the "eat-your-young" strategy is the only one that can work over the long run. And from what I've seen of the vaporware they call "Knol", it's not going to devour Wikipedia, let alone eat their lunch.

Not to say that there aren't problems with Wikipedia -- or that Wikipedia couldn't be put out of business. (That is grist for another blog post.) But even if Wikipedia lost its standing in the Google results overnight, it would still survive -- if not thrive because the kiddies would be busy chasing after the next shiny new thing.

Geoff