Michael Arrington has convinced several high level sources to disclose discussion at a top secret Google meeting where the company discussed plans to release on November 5th a new set of APIs. Those APIs will make access to the data it holds fundamentally open to outside parties, starting with a limited number of Google applications and expanding. Arrington framed the discussion as aimed at making Google more open than Facebook but I'm not so sure that's what's going on. There's good reason to feel positive about this move, but there are also a number of reasons to be very concerned. This is about putting Google all the more at the center of our lives by plugging outside applications into it and making it the key reference point for applications that want access to us.
I don't think that a meeting like this was held 6 weeks before launch in order to develop the plans; I think they got industry luminaries together to talk messaging. That's something Google needs some help with.
Recall the words of Google CEO Eric Schmidt in a May interview with the Financial Times:
We are very early in the total information we have within Google. The algorithms will get better and we will get better at personalisation...The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask the question such as ÄòWhat shall I do tomorrow?Äô and ÄòWhat job shall I take?ÄôÄâ
What's at Stake
Google holds our search histories, our email, our calendars, the view of earth from the heavens (soon sharper than ever!) and the meaning of our spoken words. Google's invested in Sergey Brin's wife's gene cataloging startup and they've prototyped software that will serve up content online that's contextual to the ambient audio from the room your computer is sitting in. Steve Hodson pulls out the requisite Cory Doctorow dystopia excerpts in a post on his blog.
So bring on the new openness! We and others have long called on Google to open up our own data to our own access. These new APIs may be a way to do that. Will they be read-only APIs, limited to letting 3rd party applications leverage (with our permission) the information that Google holds about us? Or will they be read/write APIs that allow outside third parties to write to our Google profiles as well?
That Brad Fitzpatrick, the Father of OpenID, is said to be a guiding force behind Google's efforts is a good sign. Google's activities in China, like Yahoo! and Microsoft's recent self-discipline pact, is not a good sign. Ultimately, Google's only responsibility is to its share holders.
Is Facebook Really The Issue?
Michael Arrington says that the
analogy literal target here is Facebook, but I'm not so sure. (Update: He says that was very clear, so it sounds like I'm in part wrong here.) The recent opening of Facebook to outside applications stirred no end of excitement, but in reality the vast majority of those applications so far have been of objects of trivia sitting unused on public profile pages. There's a lot more at stake with Google than a couple of pokes and some music sharing. Facebook's momentum with huge amounts of users is because of privacy controls (so far) and the brilliance of the news feeds - almost in spite of the applications, which have been widely derided as MySpace-ish.
We Need OpenID, Not GoogID
Arrington says that Google's social networking software Orkut is what will lay over the top of all its services. I think what's needed is a federated ID system like OpenID to tie everything together, not one corporate body that can already claim near omniscience. We need the attitudes of Brad Fitzgerald's old employer, Six Apart, not the arrogance of Google.
I don't want to ask Google, "What shall I do tomorrow?" Ultimately, even with all my own shortcomings in data processing and rational thought, I only want to ask that of myself.