Building a better mouse trap


I’m struggling to make sense of something here. In Blogger’s announcement about its new beta was an interesting tidbit that didn’t get much pickup: Blogger now has a Google Data API.

There’s a lot that I could say about this, and my initial reaction was actually wrong. It seemed to me that Google was going off and inventing its own blog-publishing protocol, pulling the same crap that it did with its non-standard Event Publisher API (using random values that don’t map directly to the international icalendar standard.

But, no, it turns out that GData is actually just Atom “plus some extensions for handling queries”, but branded as a proprietary Google format (kind of ironic, given the long and pained open development of Atom).

So whatever, Atom is what comes next after RSS and MetaWeblog (in particular as ).

The important thing that started to dawn on me was this part of the announcement:

So just as Yahoo had done with Flickr (inspiring a fairly wide backlash), Blogger is going to be fully absorbed into the Google Auth-borg. This continued amalgamation of services behind the Google Account Authentication has consequences beyond the momentary outcry over Google’s supposed steamrolling of companies.

Business is business and competition is a threat to any member of an ecosystem, which is why you’ve got to keep innovating, adapting and bettering to survive. But it’s different when it comes to setting protocols and standards and the seamless moving of data in and out of disparate systems. When those protocols are closed or locked up or can be sealed off at any time, the competitive environment becomes very different.

The problem that I see is Google’s ability to shut out third party services once you’ve imported yourself into the proverbial gLife. No doubt there are feeds and the aforementioned GData APIs but it’s not an open system; Google decides which ports it wants to open and for whom. Think you’ll ever be able to cross-post calendar items from to your Google Calendar? Only if Narendra strikes a deal on your behalf — even though it’s your data. Think you’ll ever be able to share your Picasa Albums with your Flickr account? Don’t bet on it. Or — or — how about sharing your Google search history with your Yahoo account? Or merging your buddy list between Orkut and Flickr? Not a chance.

In simplest terms, with the state we’re in with centralized authentication in web applications, it’s like waiting for Microsoft and Apple to strike a deal enabling you to copy and paste from Appleworks to Word. And on top of that, you’d need to have to had created an account in both apps to even boot them up. So from a “normal person perspective”, this is a situation that you’d never want to have to worry about.

But that’s essentially where we’re at.

To put it in greater perspective: Web2.0 should have been the “great wide opening” — that is, where you could be in utter control of your data and move it in and out of services at your whim, just as you can with your money, in and out of banks depending on the quality and diversity of services they offer. And indeed, they’ve got to compete just to keep your business — if you leave, you won’t be stuck with a bunch of expiring pre-loaded debit cards.

But there’s a new trend, seen in Google’s spreading account authentication that foretells of the inevitable Passport-like lock-in that sunk Microsoft the first go ’round. You see, Google’s Account Authentication API makes it easy for you to add more and more of Google services by simply using your Gmail credentials. For Google, this leads to huge network effects, because they can essentially merge behavior data from across its entire network of services to build out a better picture of you — leading to a kind of competitive advantage that no one else can touch.

The problem though, both for you and for independent developers, is that you can’t pick and choose who or what Google works with. They’ll make themselves just open enough to be above reproach but not quite open enough to allow third parties to compete with them on their home turf (man, it’d be nice if there were a “Reply by Skype” link in Gmail — oops, Gtalk only!).

And this is how Google will build a better user mousetrap by leveraging its superior cross-product integration that its authentication system affords them.

(Aside: 37Signals partially benefits from the same kind of integration in typing Writeboards into Backpack but could go further by sharing accounts between different Basecamps).

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

48 thoughts on “Building a better mouse trap”

  1. I am so glad l noticed your post and read it as l was just going to create a google account and after reading l have well and truly decided gainst.
    I don’t understand all the IT things you do but l got the message so thanks again.
    Six yrs ago when l started with pc’s l tried then to get a microsoft password and over the years have tried again but no joy but as l am determined l spent the last two days trying again, in the end l could have strangled them and still no passport and l will never try again, have better things to do.
    From my point of view having a computer and searching for intresting sites used to be a pleasure but not now l always end up with spyware picking up like yesterday 8 tracking cookies, seems the fun has gone,

  2. Hi Chris, I submited this to Digg. You’ve got one comment there already, but it’s not from a fan: “[…] bottom line is the opinion of this author is severly flawed and he needs to wake up and take a good look at reality.” Would be interesting to see your response to that “attack”!

  3. Chris, I have serious doubts that we can ever get close to this type of openess on the web. The web is such an unconstrained framework. It’s mostly about presentation. At the moment it has even less of a semantics than desktop apps. It’s just way too much work to make your app open in every way possible.

    Maybe something greasemonkeyish is the answer to your skype link problem, but that’s not very scalable or reliable. As you youself have hinted at, I think one part of the future will be in a hybrid web/desktop framework with the benefits of both and then some. And of course, once you have your personal AI preprocessing information for you all this will be moot.

  4. Well presented Chris! Google is a huge organization and I think one of the most success at balancing there business desires and contributing to free culture.

    Even Blogspot by itself does not scale with my life.

    I like what Eric Rice recently wrote in I’d fear Google more than AOL, “Even if your data’s not leaked, you put a lot on the grid. What can we aggregate about YOU, that you put out there yourself?” Currently, I am ok with that, but it is important to be aware.

  5. @borge, not sure what happened, but your third link worked! I also followed up on that comment.

    @rowan: The web is already fairly well semanticized… it just needs to have more agreement about how to mark up certain kinds of data and we’ll be a lot further along all at once. In time, it’ll happen — the benefits are too great for it not to.

    I also don’t believe in AI preprocessing. As good as it’s getting, it just will never be good enough in my lifetime — and furthermore, I really don’t want robots living my life for me. I’d rather have to struggle and fight and keep building technology (because I love to) than have all these problems solved by unthinking machines.

  6. Well, I am just a user of some of all this stuff google or otherwise. The new beta blogger has gotten a bit on my nerves for what is mostly the wrong reasons… my account is still on the old blogger, however when I want to log into gmail now I have the blogger ID and password coming up…

    I am not sure where google is heading, and I also do not know if google knows where it is heading; it is growing faster than most of us can keep track. Your concerns are good and we need to keep awareness of what is going on…

    Still for the user what is important is portability and reliable standards that also allow for growth and can advances in the technology. However the bigger google gets, the more competition there will be. I want to keep the choice without having to have 435 accounts for everything, but I also do not want “big brother” to have all the goodies on me.

  7. Chris, I’m a little confused by some of your rhetoric. No doubt interop/interchange is a good thing but the pragmatic in me says your desire for the great wide opening cuts a bit too close to the revenue bone. Copy/paste, for instance, is fairly manual but it does work between, say, the rich edit controls in Blogger and WordPress (or Blogger and MS Word) with no API or contractual agreements needed. WordPress has importers for Blogger, MovableType and a few others and again, no API/contract.

    Cross-vendor authentication and authorization is a gnarly problem independent of the business aspects as you well understand from your friends at SXIP et al. Sun has been trying to drive Project Liberty since the turn of the century and despite many vendors signing on has had little (trivial?) real world impact because the business aspects cannot just be abstracted away.

  8. Lloyd, IMO that’s because WP has only so many engineering resources and an export would significantly reduce the amount needed for this feature. But Andy’s comment does negate the existence and in fact I wrote my own exporter some months ago so it can’t be that hard. Not ‘press one button’ but fairly trivial.

    Your comment seems to focus on a small, relatively unimportant, aspect of my comment. Given your and Chris experience trying to navigate the multi-vendor waters with Flock I’m much more interested in how you think the business could work with the removal of lock in suggested in this post.

  9. Bill, I focused on the easy part of your statements ;-). I don’t think there is a correct answer, nor do I think Chris is necessarily arguing “the great wide opening”. The solutions today are very context specific. What is your business? Proponents of free culture have to be all the more innovative to succeed on our (business) culture, but they are exciting challenges!

  10. Chris – this is an excellent post. I’m a big fan of Google’s software/services and more and more of my computing time is being spent within the Google empire. However, as you highlight, there is a potential downside of doing this. From a business perspective, its hard not to admire the Google strategy but long-term it could reduce consumer choice/flexibility. I’m not sure it will ever come to that but I enjoyed the thoughtful comments.

  11. Google’s behaviour is entirely predictable really.

    Everybody loved Google when they were the upstart facing down Microsoft’s Dr. Frankenstein, and now (no surprise at all), everybody can see them becoming Frankenstein’s monster.

    Google is a product of the environment that created it. The company operates in a capitalist market, and as such is behaving entirely predictably – slowly digging a vertical channel and creating lock-in through the benefits of “being on the train” rather than “being on the platform”…

  12. I’ll take a contrary view here. I think it doesn’t matter. The only solution would be to remove the authentication from Yahoo, and from Google, and let that be handled by someone else. But if that happened the new authenticator would be the owner of you and your persona … so what’s the difference? You can’t have personalisation without identification.

  13. …Which is the whole premise behind OpenID. Ultimately, it’s okay to outsource managing your identity, just as you do when you put your money in a bank or get a credit card. However, you have a coice over whether to play that game or not — there being benefits for and against doing either.

    With OpenID, you decide who manages your identity, who vouches for you and who you trust to “loan” your information to.

    The decentralized model is the one that will work in the long term, rather than the centralized models that have repeatedly failed in the past.

  14. ok, I buy that. Presumably with an OpenID you could choose services from various providers, (Google, Yahoo, Ma.gnolia etc) and enter any of them with the same login. And as you say you could change your services as you choose, without changing your login ID. OK I am a convert.

  15. Hmm,

    As a strong Google services user the cross integration of the services is in my mind a great thing. I can access my calendar from Gmail, I can post to my Blog from reader, etc. This is a great thing that Microsoft Passport never really figured out. Passport ended up securing a completely un-related collection of websites which made it felt disjointed. Microsoft never leveraged passport to drive the cross service integration. Cross service integration is good! it makes the PC experience feel better then web experience because you can share you data. Think why iLife works so well on the mac? The data is shared everywhere!

    So, in my mind if Google makes it so I can display my gCalendar seamlessly on Blogger then Great! This is exactly the kind of experience we want from Web 2.0.


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  18. Think you’ll ever be able to cross-post calendar items from 30boxes to your Google Calendar?


    You can already do it from ScheduleWorld.

    There’s an API for Google Calendar.

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