The data portability Landscape – An update

Given the recent intense activity around data portability (Announcements from Facebook, Google, Twitter, Yahoo etc) and the impending end of the year, I thought it opportune to summarize the data portability landscape from my personal perspective and the perspective of the DataPortability Project.

The data portability Landscape Diagram

The data portability Landscape Diagram

2008 was called “The year of Data Portability”. In many ways, that prediction was very true.

Above is a diagram of the data portability ecosystem in so far as it relates to Google Friend Connect, Facebook Connect, the DataPortability Project and the Open Stack.

1. data portability (the general idea)

The idea of data portability, in general, has emerged to mean the ability to reuse data between services in some shape or form. It may be a one off implementation between two services, a proprietary universal login play or an open standards attempt at interoperability.

2. Participating Sites

Sites that participate in providing and/or receiving data. They do this with the authority and permission of their end users.

3. DataPortability (Specific Idea)

The specific notion of DataPortability as defined by the DataPortability project is as follows:

Vision
Data portability enables a borderless experience, where people can move easily between network services, reusing data they provide while controlling their privacy and respecting the privacy of others.

For the user
With data portability, you can bring your identity, friends, conversations, files and histories with you, without having to manually add them to each new service. Each of the services you use can draw on this information relevant to the context. As your experiences accumulate and you add or change data, this information will update on other sites and services if you permit it, without having to revisit others to re-enter it.

For the Service Provider
With cross-system data access, interoperability, and portability, people can bring their identities, friends, conversations, files, and histories with them to your service, cutting down on the need for form-filling which can drive people away. With minimal effort on the part of new customers, you can tailor services to suit them. When your customers browse networked services and accumulate experiences, this information can update on your service, if people permit it. Your relationship remains up-to-date and you can adapt your services in response, even when they don’t visit. With mutual control and mutual benefit, your relationships remain relevant, encouraging continued usage.

Data portability is a new approach, where it is easier to use and deliver services. This frictionless movement through the network of services fosters stronger relationships between people and services providers and helps build a healthy networked ecosystem.

Mission
To help people to use and protect the data they create on networked services, and to advocate for compliance with the values of DataPortability.

The most important notion in that entire section is ‘Interoperability’. I’ve highlighted it in red and made it bold. Interoperability means that irrespective of who is providing or receiving the data, it should be provided in such a way that is agreed upon by the community so that the implementation is consistent irrespective of parties participating in the transaction.

Sound unrealistic? The Web is already such a system. Any web browser can request a HTML document using HTTP. It does this over TCP/IP. It sometimes uses SSL.

FTP, IRC, Email, Newsgroups, WiFi – all follow a similar pattern. These protocols are owned are not owned by companies. If they were we would have a very different Internet today. Vendors, however, innovate on top of these technologies to create Browsers, FTP clients, IRC Clients, Email Clients, Laptops and so much more.

4. DataPortability Project

The DataPortability project is the project that turned the nascent standards conversation into a full fledged riot in January of 2008.

The project is responsible for defining ‘DataPortability’, advocating its adoption by developers, explaining its value to business executives, promoting its usage to end-users and providing context and commentary on  industry news as it unfolds.

The project does not create technology or software products. It evaluates the technology and products of others provides advice to the community about its compliance (or non compliance) to the core goal of interoperable data interchange.

In essence, The DataPortability Project is the ‘Spread FIrefox’ of the standards community.

5. Tools (Google Friend Connect, JanRain RPX, Others)

Perhaps where the most innovation potential exists is in the tools layer.

Current tools have made good faith efforts to provide DataPortability complaint services to site owners. Because the specific implementation guidelines are still emerging, there is still some way to go to ensure that all the tools provide a consistent programming interface.

Current tools also act to bridge the gap by turning non-compliant systems (e.g. Systems that don’t use Open Stack) into more standards compliant end-points.

It is hoped that all services begin to implement their own standards compliance to limit the need for tools to act as gatekeepers. Tools will still be necessary, however, to provide a plethora of value-added services. These services, however, should never break the interoperability promise of ‘DataPortability’.

6. The Open Stack

These are the core open standards based technologies that make Interoperable DataPortability possible. Some have been created by formal and official standards bodies, others by ad-hoc community efforts. Some are protected by the W3C, others by the Open Web Foundation. All, represent a piece of work that is freely available, generally agreed upon and open for use by all.

7. Facebook Connect

Facebook connect is a version of ‘data portability’ (Point 1). It allows an elegant and simple re-use of data between Facebook and other services. Rather than being based on the Open Stack (Point 6), it is based on Facebooks Proprietary Platform (Item 8 on the diagram).

The key point here, however, is that Facebook Connect is owned by Facebook. Rather than interoperable point to point ‘DataPortability’ as defined by the DataPortability project, it provides a hub and spoke model where the technology and the experience is owned by a private company.

So far Facebook Connect is the best implementation of data portability available in the wild. It offers a compelling business value (millions of ready and active users) and simple APIs.

The community, via the many pieces loosely joined detailed in point 1-6, must come together to create a cohesive value proposition of its own in order to compete with this proprietary model.

Compete we must, however. Facebook, like AOL and Microsoft Passport before it, must eventually participate in the Open Web. Because the web is, and always will be, bigger than any single company.

The Future

Closed platforms are like ice cubes in a glass of water. They will float for a while. They will change the temperature of the liquid beneath. Ultimately, however, the ice cube must eventually melt into the wider web.

Facebook’s success with Facebook Connect can and will further drive innovation in the community to develop an open alternative.

Facebook’s success will also drive large media companies, competitors (like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, AOL, Myspace, countless major media properties and countless small startups) to create alternatives. At least some of those participants will recognize (if they have not already) that the most open among them will earn both the respect and the market share of the next phase. Moving from Facebook Connect’s ‘data portability’ to Interoperable DataPortability.

A web of Data.

That’s a landscape where we can continue to innovate on a level playing field.

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