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Communications in the User-Centric Economy

by Johannes Ernst

Time Magazine famously told us last December that we, the users, control the Information Age. It's a matter of some dispute whether that is indeed true already or only will be, but there is no question that user-centric technologies enabled by the Web—such as blogging, tagging, video sharing, podcasting, syndication, and others—have been causing a dramatic and accelerating shift of power and control from vendors to users.

What does this mean for communications? Nothing short of turning this multi-trillion-dollar industry inside out. Let me try to explain.

How many phone numbers do you have? I have about four (home, work, mobile, Skype-in). But wait, given the VoIP capabilities of the various instant-messaging services that I use, I also have a Skype user handle that can be used for voice, one from Yahoo, one from Google, two from AOL, and one from Apple (dot-mac). That makes 10 for voice alone. Then of course I have e-mail addresses (about a dozen or so at last count), non-voice instant-messaging handles (Jabber), several home pages, accounts at some social networking sites that can be used to communicate with me, and who knows what else.

It's true, I don't even know all the services that you can use to communicate with me! Which is a clear indicator of a big problem that communications services providers can't ignore any longer: the model in which every vendor assigns me some (phone) number or (e-mail) address or (IM) handle or (user) name that is specific to it and that I and my friends need before we can use its communications service (to communicate!) is simply not scalable any further.

Twenty years ago, I had just two: the phone number at my parents' house, and the phone number that I shared with several students at college. I certainly knew those two, and anybody who wanted to talk to me knew those as well. If today not even I know which communications services I'm subscribed to, what will it be like 20 years from now? Or even five years from now? We need a new model, otherwise all these shiny new communications services are simply not going to get used: neither me nor my friends will remember my 43rd communications handle, regardless of how cool the service behind it is.

Which is why the user-centric technology architecture is so intriguing. It basically asks, what if we started with the individual (the user, and his or her identity) instead of the service provider (the vendor and the customer ID that it assigns to me)? We would have exactly one identifier per user—because it's the same user of all of those services—that everybody could use to build their services around. And those services would be delivered in a manner that's actually relevant to the user, instead of a vendor-centric stovepipe that nobody remembers how to use.

This is why using URLs to identify people (with technologies such as OpenID for authentication and Yadis for service description and discovery) is such a key innovation: one identifier, one URL, with an open-ended list of associated services that can be discovered and negotiated dynamically, without any effort from my friend who just wants to talk to me.

I will have more to say in the future about how this idea impacts new and incumbent communications providers. For now, let's consider the historical parallel with the PC. The mainframe, and most mainframe vendors, were obliterated within a few short years by the rise of the PC, which was crappy and a toy compared to the state of the art in mainframe computing. But it did one thing the mainframe did not: put the user in control. This seemingly simple idea was—and is—so disruptive, it makes all the difference. There's a good chance we will see history repeat itself over the next few years in communications, just on a scale that's a few trillions of dollars larger.

If you are interested in these issues, please stop by at the upcoming Internet Identity Workshop, May 14-16 in Mountain View, CA, at the Computer History Museum. All the movers and shakers of the user-centric identity movement will be there, up close and personal, and because it is an un-conference, you get to determine the agenda. This will be my 4th IIW, and I highly recommend it.

Johannes Ernst is an electrical engineer by training, software developer by interest, and entrepreneur by choice.

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