Well, the open community can’t beat Facebook.
But companies using open technologies can – by building better products. Outside the echo chamber of web standards fanatics, the vast majority of web users don’t care about how the web works. They care about their user experience, where their friends are, and when something goes wrong, protecting their privacy.
When I read about Google Buzz (and other open-based products), it is repeatedly described as the open alternative to Facebook. Does this information help me (as a consumer) make a better decision about which product to use? No. That’s like telling the average cell phone buyer that the difference between the iPhone and Android is that the latter uses an open source operating system. When it comes to selling phones, Google relies on their search reputation and brand, not the openness of their platform.
Getting consumers to use your products, like any other retail interaction, requires offering something useful that is better than other alternatives. It is true that sometimes a backlash against one company leads consumers to switch to someone else, but they don’t “vote for the new guy”, they “vote out the old guy”. If users leave Facebook to use Google, it is not a victory for Google – it is a loss for Facebook.
When it comes to showing the value in open technology, very few efforts can show how being open makes products better. Even if OpenID solved all its problems, found a less offensive solution to the NASCAR problem, got providers certified and trusted, provided a legal framework for managing liability, educated consumers, and actually worked, it will still fail without the wealth of data offered by Facebook.
Why should publishers (content and service providers) choose a solution that doesn’t deliver actual consumer value?
In an attempt to address this, the OpenID community has been looking for ways to compete with Facebook. The OpenID/OAuth Hybrid proposal was one approach. Adding rich profile data was another (in the conceptual proposal for OpenID Connect). But these are all focused on enabling technologies, not products. Even if there was a complete open solution for every Facebook feature, it would still not offer a compelling value proposition because without actual data behind it, it is nothing but empty containers.
If Facebook asked me, I would recommend using open technologies because it is good for business (when available and applicable). But to everyone else I would recommend focusing more on the product and less about the openness of the platform. Open is certainly a selling point in the enterprise market, but it is not in the consumer market.
Two years ago the big fight was against the “walled-gardens” and user data, now it is about open standards. It didn’t make a difference back then (users didn’t care) and it won’t make one now. Facebook didn’t change their data policies because of what users wanted – they changed it because of what publishers demanded, and the publishers asked for data, in whatever shape or form Facebook wanted to give it.
The reason why the newly proposed OpenID Connect protocol is actually promising is that it focuses on mobility instead of federation. Instead of trying to build a fully distributed and federated identity framework, the proposal uses OAuth 2.0 to build vendor-specific identity solutions that are all implemented the same way. By allowing publishers to move from one compliant vendor to another, it lays the groundwork for future federation and distribution.
In other words, the fact that it doesn’t embrace discovery at its core, but starts with reliance on client registration and vendor specific relationship is an assets because it guarantees better products with built-in mobility. That mobility will allow publishers to take their business elsewhere if they don’t get the data and services they want.
Good technology enables better products. Being open is just the cherry-on-top.
Then of course, there is the other option: if you can’t beat them, join them.