LJ Archive

Linux for Suits

The Only Silo

Doc Searls

Issue #138, October 2005

“Edison's light bulb was important not because he was the first with the idea; as many as ten others envisioned similar schemes. Rather it was significant because he conceived not just a bulb but a whole electrified world.”—Teresa Riordan, US News

We've been fighting closed and proprietary software for a long time now. And we've had lots of success—enough, I think, that we need to move to the next stage: to the marketplace. We can see the problem when we look at how many closed systems have open foundations: Google and Amazon on Linux, Apple's Mac OS X and Yahoo's search infrastructure on BSD. Also, countless closed Web habitats served up by Apache.

Am I being unfair here? Perhaps a little. You can't be open in every possible respect, right? Some stuff needs to be locked down or closed off. Customer data, future product plans, trade secrets and “secret sauces” of one kind or another. But those aren't the issue.

The real issue is silos: closed habitats that serve as private marketplaces that lock customers in and competitors out.

Dick Hardt of Sxip Networks gives a killer talk about “Identity 2.0”. As Dick puts it, Identity 1.0 is a province of walled gardens. Amazon, eBay, Flickr and Skype are all walled gardens. They may be lovely places to hang out, but they are also enclosed and private market spaces, as false in their own way as the faux Venetian canals and Parisian streets in Las Vegas hotels.

What makes them most different from closed systems of the traditional sort is not a lack of interoperability—often they have that—but the lock-in of personal data. You can't take your eBay reputation, or the business you've built inside eBay's walled garden, over to Amazon. Even trivial data, such as your Skype contact list, isn't portable. It's locked inside a space that is not your own.

To hear Dick describe it, Identity 1.0 is barely past medieval. It's a country of duchies and city states. But since we're so used to it, we can barely think outside its walls. Yet that's where we belong, he says. The world we want—the Identity 2.0 world—is one of independent actors: free-range customers, conducting business and building relationships in ways that each individual controls and that work with many different vendors.

The problem with the walled garden metaphor is that all the familiar examples are native to the Web. Silos, on the other hand, are everywhere, both on the Web and off. Nearly every familiar business category you can name—banking, hospitality, retailing, commercial aviation, car rental...even office equipment, such as copiers and printers—is a forest of silos. Take airlines. I am a registered frequent flyer with United, American, Delta, America West and Southwest. Yet the only common way I can relate to any of the five is money. None of my data in the United silo is available for my dealings with American or Delta.

We've lived in a world packed with silos for so long that we now confuse them with a free marketplace. We actually believe that a choice of silos comprises all the conditions required for a free market. We can see how limited this is when we look at the market category we call computers. A quarter century ago, we thought the category was free and open because we had a choice of silos from IBM, Digital, Data General, Wang and HP. We thought the same way about networks when our choices were OmniNet, WangNet, IBM Token Ring, Sytek, Corvus, 3Com and Ungermann-Bass.

I remember a long conversation I had with Ralph Ungermann about how his company's goods were “open” because they interoperated with other networks. In a relative sense, they may have been. But the market was essentially a field of silos. What he offered was inter-silo-operability. Good for its day, but nothing like the Net that was to come—and which didn't come from any one vendor at all.

I remember Earl Gillmor talking about silos, way back in 1980. Earl enjoyed a small measure of notoriety as a member of a splinter group at Data General that lost “the shoot-out at the Holiday Inn” in Durham, North Carolina—an event immortalized in the early pages of Tracy Kidder's book, The Soul of a New Machine. After the shoot-out, Earl left DG and formed a new systems integration company in Raleigh called BAS, for Business Application Systems. BAS's goal was to produce what they called “machine-independent software”. To be independent, Earl explained, you needed software that was independent of every hardware vendor's silo.

One day, early in my company's relationship with BAS, Earl explained the ideals of machine independence, all of which are familiar to anybody acquainted with open source today. (Although, naturally, BAS's code was proprietary.) When he was done with his rap, my business partner asked the impolite question, “So how do you make your money?” “We're whores”, Earl replied. “We walk the streets with the rest of them.” His point: they had no choice—except among silos. (BAS, it turned out, bet on the wrong silo: Texas Instruments' DS990s.)

Silo was just one container metaphor kicking around in those days. Others were smokestacks and stovepipes. Today those metaphors have fallen behind silo in popularity. I suspect that's because silos are completely contained. Unlike smokestacks and stovepipes, they don't have an opening at the top.

The prototypical office building is a silo of sorts. With its security systems, its employee and visitor badges, it comprises what David Wieinberger calls “Fort Business”:

This fort is, at its heart, a place apart. We report there every morning and spend the next eight, ten or twelve hours inaccessible to the “real” world. The portcullis drops not only to keep out our enemies, but to separate us from distractions such as our families. As the drawbridge goes up behind us, we become businesspeople, different enough from our normal selves that when we first bring our children to the office, they've been known to hide under our desks, crying.

Within this world, the Web looks like a medium that exists to allow Fort Business to publish on-line marketing materials and make credit-card sales easier than ever....The Web isn't primarily a medium for information, marketing or sales. It's a world in which people meet, talk, build, fight, love and play. In fact, the Web world is bigger than the business world and is swallowing the business world whole. The vague rumblings you're hearing are the sounds of digestion.

The change is so profound that it's not merely a negation of the current situation. You can't just put a big “not” in front of Fort Business and say, “Ah, the walls are coming down.” No, the true opposite of a fort isn't an unwalled city. It's a conversation.

David wrote that more than six years ago, in Chapter 6 of The Cluetrain Manifesto. We still aren't having the conversation required to bring the walls down. True, there are some significant conversations growing out of employee blogs. For example, nothing has done more to bring down Microsoft's walls than interaction with outsiders by Robert Scoble, Kim Cameron (a subject of last month's column) and about 2,000 other blogging Microsoft employees.

But the problem isn't communication. It's the structure of markets themselves. I'm not talking about structure in an architectural sense, but in a deeper way that's more like geology. Because the Internet is geological, not just architectural. It has a nature that goes deeper than whatever structures private efforts can provide. But that nature is hard to see when your frames of reference are closed and proprietary.

Like many in the Linux community (including my good friend Eric Raymond), I have strong Libertarian sensibilities. I understand the liberating advantages of private property to societies and their economies. Ownership matters, and ownership works. But we in the Free Software and Open Source communities also know there are some things that are beyond the scope of ownership and the control ownership naturally implies. Earth below the crust is as beyond the practical scope of ownership as the weather and the stars. Yet they provide us with services so fundamental we couldn't live without them. One of those services is a deep and easily ignored context for property: gravity. Real estate would be meaningless without the gravitational pull provided by a mass we'll never see. The Net's geology is like that.

I've written many times about the NEA nature of the Net, and of all free and open-source software: Nobody owns it, Everybody can use it and Anybody can improve it. The same applies to markets, and it's time we started improving the ones we've got, by putting silos in a context that makes clear their limited advantages.

The Supreme Court missed a chance to do that with the Brand X case. In a 6–3 decision that was handed down on June 27, 2005—the same day as Grokster, which is a big reason why not much of a fuss was made about it—the Supremes upheld a 2002 FCC ruling that classified cable broadband as a deregulated “information service” rather than a “telecommunications service”. Unpacked, that means the cable and telephone companies can (and will) be exclusive Internet service providers. Independent ISPs like Brand X and Earthlink, which don't own physical connections to homes and businesses, are out of luck if the cable and phone companies want to keep captive customers to themselves.

More importantly, the FCC's understanding of the Internet achieved the stature of law with the Brand X decision. That understanding is basically feature-rich broadcast. It's a concept of service anchored on the supply side of the highly asymmetrical distribution system the FCC has governed for most of the last century.

Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, in a speech at the VON (Voice On the Net) conference one year ago, said, “To realize the innovation dream that IP communications promises, however, we must ensure that a willing provider can reach a willing consumer over the broadband connection.” He generously acknowledged “the importance of consumer empowerment” and rights such as “Freedom to Access Content”, which he explained with “Consumers should have access to their choice of legal content.” Generous as that may have been, it was no less top-down than anything owned by Rupert Murdoch. Nowhere did he acknowledge the Net's most profound commercial grace: supporting the ability of anybody to go into business, and to do business, with anybody they please, anywhere.

Thomas Madsen-Mygdal, a young serial entrepreneur in Denmark who hosts the delightful annual reboot conference in Copenhagen, recently told me he likes and appreciates Flickr—the on-line photo gallery phenomenon that has taken the world by storm (and which was built on LAMP)—but that it has “lock-in” issues:

I don't mean “a total lock-in” in the traditional BigCo IT sense. More like that if open data standards existed, the collective value would be in the commons—not on one photo sharing site. The London bombings wouldn't be about the “flickr tag”, but about the “photo tag” or just the tag—which in my book is much more aligned with our values and the society we want to create.

Thomas' higher-level concern is that “we're selling out on values of open standard and decentralization”. What Tim O'Reilly calls the “architecture of participation”, Thomas says, is turning into something that is “based on silos” in practice. So, he adds, “I'm gonna try and push some open standards in the photo sharing space to level the competition.”

He'll do that, he says, by “dividing what is the commons from what is the product. That way, thousands of photo sharing products can create a collective value that's a lot greater. Competition will be on the product side, rather than on who aggregates most of the commons.” Thomas' site, 23people.com, is open for beta.

This month, O'Reilly is putting on its second Web 2.0 conference. (Shouldn't they call it Web 2.1?) In September 2004, Tim O'Reilly described Web 2.0 as “the Internet as a platform”. Then he added:

We heard about that idea back in the late 1990s, at the height of the browser wars, but that turned out to be a false alarm. But I believe we're now starting the third age of the Internet—the first being the telnet-era command-line Internet, the second the Web—and the third, well, that tale grows in the telling. It's about the way that open source and the open standards of the Web are commoditizing many categories of infrastructure software, driving value instead to the data and business processes layered on top of (or within) that software; it's about the way that Web sites like eBay, Amazon and Google are becoming platforms with rich add-on developer communities; it's about the way that network effects and data, rather than software APIs, are the new tools of customer lock-in; it's about the way that to be successful, software today needs to work above the level of a single device; it's about the way that the Microsofts and Intels of tomorrow are once again going to blindside established players because all the rules of business are changing.

That was a lead-in to the Web 2.0 conference. After the conference, in an interview with Richard MacManus, Tim said:

I actually ran a couple of panels on this at our Open Source convention, a year and a half or two years ago—called “Open Data—Do We Need a Bill of Rights for Web Services?” We had people from Amazon, eBay and others trying to answer that question: what does it mean when we're investing our on-line data in these sites? Will we end up with something like the Open Source movement because the companies have ended up locking in their users?

....But the actual data ownership is maybe less important, in some areas, than people think. When we talk about user-contributed data, we're not just talking about my data proper (as in having your mail stored on Gmail or Yahoo! Mail or whatever). We're also talking about a kind of content that users are contributing to a collective work. So for example, Amazon Reviews—people don't really care about that in the same way. They're not saying, “Oh I created that review and I want to be able to export it to Barnes & Noble as well.” They're creating it in a particular context of that community.

....Despite what I've said...data lock-in absolutely should be a concern. I believe that data lock-in of various kinds is going to be one of the key tools of business advantage in the Internet era. I think that as companies realize this, they will figure out how to be evil—so to speak (to use Google's terminology)—and I predict that we will in fact have some major battles in that area.

As I said last month, one answer is to create ways to do what Drummond Reed calls “Company Relationship Management” (or CoRM), which should look far more interesting and useful to companies than their own Customer Relation Management (CRM) systems, which by nature have no view outside the company's own silo. In fact, CRMs are one of the main ways companies maintain their silos.

Another is to pay more attention to where the Net's deep, almost geological market-making infrastructure comes from. It's not from the physical cables that run to homes or from the “services” available exclusively from cable and phone companies, but from the open protocols that define the Net's environment. It's also not from fancy private services inside corporate walled gardens but from the raw building materials that make deploying those services so free and easy.

Which brings us back to the L in the LAMP suite that makes possible the last phrase above.

What makes Linux so different, and so successful, is that it's not designed as a silo. Linux didn't come from a silo, and it had no ambitions to be a silo. At one point, Linus talked about “world domination”, but his tongue was in his cheek—even if he was indulging in prophesy that would prove out in the long run.

Linux was never a business. It was, and remains, a great way to build anything, to support anything, for anybody. That's the fundamental virtue we need to fight for when we go to battle.

Our battle, however, is not with the companies that use open code to build walled gardens and silos. Our battle is with the closed, top-down silo-oriented value system that has been with us since the dawn of the Industrial Age. It's that lame old value system that prevents us from imagining how we can improve markets that nobody owns and anybody can improve.

The best way to shed the old mentality is to embrace our customers and not only their money. Today the preponderance of inventiveness and productivity is out in the free world, in the hands of free-range individuals. Linus Torvalds is the prototypical example of one of those individuals. There are countless more like him, producing all kinds of goods, expressing all kinds of demand—much of which they are able to supply for themselves, as Linus did, and with the help of others, as the Linux community has done.

In fact, the only silo that matters is the most fundamental and indivisible unit in the marketplace, the individual. What we need is to create and support independence, not dependence.

Work to free individuals, and to take advantage of what they do with that freedom, and you'll have a winning strategy in the new marketplace we're all making together.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.

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