Labs vs. liberty
I got myself into a rather light-hearted dispute today when I posted on Antiquist about my unsuppressable excitement over Photosynth, one of Microsoft’s attempts to still seem happenin’ in the wake of the all-conquering Google Labs (note that MS now also have their own Microsoft Live Labs, no doubt to imply the presence of happy coders chuckling to each other over their organic tofu burgers as they invent blue-sky apps with no thought for the MS bottom line). In response to my exuberance, Sebastian Rahtz (who’s opinion I generally hold in high regard, I should add) commented, with a hint jocularity (I hope), that I was ‘no better than the BBC’. He wasn’t referring to the Auntie Beeb of Hutton Inquiry fame, however, fighting tooth-and-nail for truth and justice against the mandarins of Whitehall. No, it was the fawning and effeminate BBC that makes my toes curl every time I watch Click-Online (not often), and, as Chris pointed out to me the other day, thinks that ‘IT news’ means another product launch. And, of course, he had a point. There I was, gurgling like a baby about a software concept over which I can do nothing but click’n’tilt. No API, no roadmap, not even use of my own data. But boy, does it look good. Where I’m going with this is to ask what we should be getting excited about that we’re not, and whether I’m just working for the man when I start shouting Gatesy’s latest toys all around the place?
In answer to the first, there are some pretty cool OS toys out there: check out Project Looking Glass, for example, or Zimbra. Amarok kicked iTunes ass the firt time I used it: don’t have album art? – it’ll auto-download from Amazon. Want to know about the band? -it’ll ask Wikipedia for you. Simple, sure – but a really great use of open webservices (in fact I’m told the latest version of iTunes does something similar). And if Firefox were a woman I’d probably want to marry her. So why don’t we bang the drum about these things much more? Sometimes, it’s because they involve more setting up time than most people are willing to invest (like PLG and Zimbra). Sometimes it’s because they come pre-installed so you just kind of take them for granted (Amarok on KDE). And sometimes their true beauty only becomes clear after a while (it’s hard to show why I find Firefox preferable to IE7 in 2 minutes – it’s all about the plugins).
So what about the other side? On the one hand, it’s not only hard not to start jumping around when you have a ‘Google Earth’ moment (you remember your first time, don’t you? Of course you do) – it’s arguably inspirational. Would neogeography be what it is today without Googlemaps? Nope. Would even KDE be what it is without Windows? Nope (keep quiet in the back, Mac fans). Just because something is proprietary doesn’t mean it can’t stimulate the OS community to explore new directions and maybe even do them better. And hell, there’s nothing wrong with people making a few quid by out-thinking the competition. But, and there is a but, are we being taken in useful directions? Or are we simply being distracted by closed boxes – lovely looking baubles that will never play a truly constructive role in our web 2.0-inspired collaborative future?
I still don’t know.