Even after all these years working on user-centric identity, privacy-protecting technologies, open source, code in the hands of the user instead of the overlord … I’m still struggling with articulating the value succinctly.
Case in point. I’m going through the strategic marketing exercise of describing for whom these kinds of products/technologies/services are, and what unmet needs they enable to be met.
- The Oracle database is for enterprises who need to manage large amounts of structured data used by many applications.
- A cell phone is for individuals who need to be reachable quickly and do not stay in the same place most of the time.
- A microwave oven (and associated microwave dinners) are for individuals or parents who do not have the time to cook from scratch every night.
- LinkedIn is for professionals who need to find a new job, stay in contact with professional acquaintances not working in the same company, or wish to further their professional brand.
And so forth and so forth. That’s easy for traditional products or established technologies.
In the user-centric world, a couple are easy as well, like:
- WordPress is for small and medium-sized businesses who need a custom-branded web presence without a big budget.
- Bitcoin is for individuals and small businesses who need to easily move money to/from other individuals or small businesses across national boundaries.
(There may be more user categories and more needs, I’m just using these ones as examples for compelling user / need / uniqueness combinations that work.)
But what about those:
- OpenBazaar is for … what? whom? who need …? (I’m reading through their website, and the best I can find is “for anybody who wants to sell without fees or restrictions” (whatever those are). The best I could put it myself is “an experiment in decentralized governance for commerce, in the hope it will enable new kinds of commercial interactions between new kinds of parties that aren’t possible in the traditional model; once we have those, we will know for whom we created it and why they need it.” Too harsh? Can you do better?
- Known is for individual publishers with a personal brand who need to reach an audience that is distributed over several social media silos. (This is rephrased what they say on their front page; I note that there’s nothing particularly decentralized or user-centric in this statement)
- Diaspora* (and decentralized social media software similar to it) is for communities who need to communicate in a group but … what?
- Mattermost is for work groups who need to communicate in the group and do not want to … what? Pay Slack when their bill is due? What else?
- ownCloud / Nextcloud is for companies, communities and individuals who need to exchange and reliably store files and cannot … what?
How much of the “what” here is privacy? Clearly, decentralized tech is much better at privacy, but if privacy is 80% of the need, we are in trouble because nobody spends any significant amounts of money on privacy (unless they *really* have something to hide). (I’m not counting those businesses who have legal requirements to store data in particular ways)
There are some other benefits:
- The ability to avoid “site death” and the corresponding loss of accumulated historical data. But this is the avoidance of possible, uncertain pain. Hard to sell unless you are in the insurance business. None of the examples above “sell” this on their front page.
- The ability to hack the product: fork the code, add new features, integrate in unusual ways etc. Practically, however, very few people have the ability to hack products, and of those who do, almost nobody has the time. And never mind maintenance after the initial hack.
- The ability to keep the vendor “honest”, which may just be a combination of avoiding site death (perhaps by a thousand feature changes) and the ability to fork.
- Lower cost. If it’s open-source, I don’t need to pay anybody. That of course is bad for sustainability of those products, and their ability to compete with the overlords’.
- Potentially getting support from a variety of vendors. There’s an advantage to be able to take a car to any car repair place, not just licensed ones. This might translate into better, more varied service at lower costs. But is that real, or just hoped-for?
Personally, as a user of user-centric technology, I gravitate towards threse three:
- I can be (more) confident that my data is around in the long term, and that I will still be able to use it. However, I have a hard time quantifying just how valuable that is to me.
- No one vendor can put their foot down and prevent me from what I want to do, whether that is adding new features, buying from another vendor or take over support etc.
- It enables entrepreneurs to build new businesses on top. However, if those are proprietary, we sort of shoot ourselves in the foot by counting this as an advantage.
But then, how many people/projects in this space highlight those same benefits? From experience, I would say very few. Why is that? Am I an outlier?