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SATURDAY, MAY 28, 2016
Yesterday two different people sent a link my way, with perhaps a 5 minute interval between. The link was for Ubiquity, the latest Mozilla project ( http://labs.mozilla.com/2008/08/introducing-ubiquity/ ), an application that builds into the browser a "language" that allows you to embed Google Map locations into your emails, display lists, copy items into Twitter, etc all on the fly. Basically Ubiquity would be the seam that ties major sites together allowing you to do special tasks in a simplified way - and often tasks that you wouldn't have otherwise been able to do. That's a pretty high level view of it, and the app is currently in alpha, with its 0.1 release.

An application like this offers a lot. It lets users go beyond the individual website, and the seamlessness creates what I imagine will be the Web 3.0 experience. The user experience across websites is improved, as content no longer quite belongs to a particular website, but becomes a free floating part of the internet ether.

But is this necessarily a good thing? As an advocate for Net Neutrality, I have a particular bone to pick with an application such as this one, and others like the new browser Flock, which creates a social networking across major websites. It's a bit of a stretch to pick this bone, particularly when overall the service these programs and apps can offer are quite useful and free - but it's a bone to pick, all the same.

First off, what is Net Neutrality? In brief, the internet was intended to be a free, and equal medium - neutral when it comes to companies, countries, content. Lately the neutrality of the web has come into question when internet providers have realized there's a lot of money that can be made by having high traffic websites pay for the speed at which they're delivered. For example, Google can pay to be delivered at a faster rate, than say a smaller, new and upcoming search engine. This immediately creates an environment that favors the established and well off companies, and makes it extremely difficult for upcoming websites. With net neutrality, if both sites are delivered at the same speed, then it becomes a part of the websites themselves to deliver their content (the product) at a faster speed. In other words, the competition becomes purely in the product, and not in the medium to get to the product. Consider it like two roads - one which takes you to a Walmart, which has more lanes, a higher speed limit, and will get you to the Walmart in 5 minutes, while the road which takes you to the mom and pop store is a single lane, dirt road that takes 10 minutes. Drivers will immediately take the road to the Walmart, and never even find out whether or not that mom and pop store has better products, and better prices.

But that's Net Neutrality when it comes to the delivery of content. There's also Net Neutrality in terms of monopolistic practices - though it doesn't always fall under the term of net neutrality. One such example was the Antitrust case of Microsoft. When Microsoft bundled Internet Explorer as part of the operating system, this practically destroyed Netscape's browser - though it later remerged as Firefox, and has since been gaining ground on IE. Why was this a monopolistic practice, and an antitrust case? Because by bundling the browser into Windows, users immediately would use IE, and not even bother to consider any alternatives. This created an environment where other browsers could not compete.

From the user's standpoint, an internet browser bundled into an operating system was in fact a great tool. It integrated the internet with the operating system: One could be browsing their files, and moments later - from the same window - browse the internet, and a moment later, be looking at files on an FTP site. The Explorer window was both a file explorer, internet explorer, and FTP explorer. I found it an extremely useful, and was particularly disappointed when it had to change - for legal reasons. Of course it destroyed the competition for internet browsers, and the end result was that the end user's experience was compromised to create a more competitive environment (the argument being that without the competition, the end user's experience will still suffer - eventually).

That's the potential risk I see here as well, with programs like Ubiquity. The major difference is that in the case of Ubiquity, there is a number of different companies and groups at play, instead of a single one, making it difficult to make an argument about monopolistic practices. But if you consider the major websites: Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Google (Gmail, Google Maps, Google News), etc. and imagine a partnership among these companies, a potential monopoly is forming - and the interesting part is that we are forming it.

The Mozilla browser allows third parties to create plugins, which allows users to create plugins which integrate with particular websites. This has eventually evolved into the notion of the Flock browser, and Ubiquity. As users we love the ability to go from one of our favorite websites to another, and have this feeling of uniformity, seamlessness, a feeling of ubiquity. But what is this really doing to our internet? We are currently heading down a path that makes it increasingly difficult for the emergent market.

Take Twitter for example, which is a popular website, with a slight twist on Social Networking. I, personally, know very few people on Twitter, and it's in large part due to all my friends using Facebook. There's no need to create an account on Twitter, and have to recreate a profile, and have another profile to keep up to date. And that's why both Google and Facebook are investing a lot into their concepts of universal accounts that branch across websites. Twitter, however, is lucky enough to already be in the realm of the popular websites.

Other websites - new ones, are having an increasingly difficult time emerging on the market. Old ones, established ones, are losing their ground because - through the decisions of the users - they were not included in the group of popular websites. MySpace, for example, while still popular, has lost a lot of ground to Facebook, and is doomed to fail as Facebook becomes the social networking website.

This is the group monopoly.

While I said it's difficult to imagine a monopoly formed by a group, group monopolies do exist, and the consumer suffers as a result of them. An example of a group monopoly is with the four major cellphone providers in Canada: Bell, Rogers, Fido and Telus. These four have created an incredibly difficult market to enter into, such that any startup provider faces an incredibly steep mountain to climb. It's the reason why Canadians have been calling for the government to take action, to assist in the smaller companies emerge into the market. It's also the reason why Canadians have very expensive phone plans when compared to the US, and even more expensive when compared with Europe - a market that is saturated with options.

With a group monopoly of websites, internet users are headed down a road where there will be no more net neutrality. Websites will lose their individuality, as they are all heaped together - and even if a website offering a better product were to emerge, it would take a whole lot to convince people who have already dedicated themselves to the group, to switch to less popular alternative.

And here enters the dilemma: As users, what should we do? Impose upon ourselves the agreement to not use tools that will allow this group monopoly to form, thereby impeding our own experience on the internet? Or provide ourselves with the better experience, thereby creating a marketplace dominated by the few, resulting in the eventual degradation of the product?
Comments

Protagoras

Protagoras

This type of monopoly cannot succeed, no matter how strong are its members. People love new ideas, new concepts, simplicity and beauty. On its early days nobody imagined that Google will push aside Alta Vista, Mosaic, and many other search engines of the time but it did, because it was more powerful and simple. The same goes for other competitions among Facebook, Myspace, and so on.

Attempts at grouping of these so-called popular sites creates only dinosaurs and speeds up their extictions as new more agile and appealing sites are being introduced. As these new sites create demand for themselves by words of mouth or by clicks, providers will be forced to speed up their deliveries.

This has been the history of the innovations during the past three centuris and there is no reason to believe that it will be different with internet and group monopoply.
REPLIES: Alamir

Alamir

Alamir

Replying to Protagoras:
These monopolies never succeed but what helps bring them down is an awareness of the monopoly and the third-parties fighting against the monopoly. I'd say that the sooner the awareness occurs, the easier it is to bring down the monopoly.

On another note, I use ubiquity and really like it. I've noticed that for a new command to be made popular it usually needs to contain a popular website such as gmaps, gmail, dictionary.com..etc. But there is a potential for a lot of lesser known sites to add some really interesting commands to ubiquity. If there's a way to feature the lesser known sites it could be great publicity. It could be like the Firefox plug-ins where it feels like there's a lot more competition since each plug-in is as easily accessible as another. The only problem is that for ubiquity to be functional it has to mash-up 2 sites..and it's much less desirable for it to be introducing 2 unpopular sites since the user has to get use to two sites. So the chances for the command to be seen as useful is dependent on how it utilizes already popular sites.
On the other hand, with a limited amount of "popular" sites, Ubiquity users may get bored and desire a new site that can offer a different type of feature that can't be found on the already-popular sites.



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