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The Great Rewiring
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Koman: So as far as morphing the definition of "the Web," though, "the Web" is still defined by content or data servers somehow putting together and giving to requesters files.



Shirky: That's right. Yeah, I think that that will change. What I don't know is whether or not people will really experience themselves as running Web servers when they are offering services out from under the cloud. But given that Web services is the narrower of the two, between Web services and peer-to-peer, my guess is that wherever the two overlap, Web services is going to be the name people use because it's easier to get your hands around. Peer-to-peer, as many people have commented on, is a very kind of slippery and open-ended label for a lot of separate movements. Web services feels like something you can point to. So my guess is that while the changes peer-to-peer portends for Web services will be more fundamental, the name "Web services" is probably going to be around for a lot longer.

Koman: This seems to be a big problem for peer-to-peer in terms of being taken seriously and being able to move it along technically. So you pointed out that standards are not happening in peer-to-peer and that's because it's not technically explicit enough for people to dig their hands into.

Shirky: Right. Peer-to-peer is such a vast idea -- which is to say essentially there are all of these edge-connected devices, there are a handful of novel ways of addressing them to collect, collate or aggregate their resources, and there are a wide number of ways of then exposing those resources to other users. Suddenly you're dealing with something that encompasses computation, storage, bandwidth, human presence. You're dealing everything from architectures that are sort of inside-out star topologies, like SETI@Home, all the way to completely decentralized webs as with Gnutella, and you get all of those people in a room and many of them simply don't have that much to say to one another. The Napster people and the SETI@Home people can each admire what the other has done with those unused resources, without them having a large number of sort of technical solutions they can discuss with one another.

Web services is in some ways a less interesting problem, but it's certainly a more tractable problem. It has what many people feel is lacking in peer-to-peer; you can point to something and there is a generally agreed-upon definition of it. One of the arguments I want to make in the idea of "The Great Rewiring" is that peer-to-peer is going to go away -- "go away" in the same way that the telephone went away, which is to say become ubiquitous -- as we take it for granted that the edge-connected devices can be full participants in the network. Web services, on the other hand, are going to sort of become increasingly high-profile as we think of ourselves as subscribing to particular services directly over the network.

Koman: We just saw P2P go through this rather nasty hype trajectory, where at first there was all this publicity and interest from VCs and then a rash of articles that P2P was overblown and there's no real business opportunities, and so on. So in three months' time, will we be there with Web services again? You know, Web services is dead, and we're off chasing the next big thing?

Shirky: I think that nothing is immune to the hype trajectory. That in a way is how things develop antibodies. And we've certainly seen the peer-to-peer world develop antibodies after it rode that particular hype trajectory. I think that the Web services hype trajectory is going to be somewhat different because Web services is primarily a B2B arrangement.

The only reason to have Web services is to have something that is both automatable and can operate with machines at both ends of the transaction. Humans will never use Web services except at the end of the pipeline. And because of that, it's never going to have the profound effect that things like Napster and ICQ had on people's perceptions of the computing environment. And so you're not going to have front-page stories on USA Today about how Web services is transforming things.

That having been said, there will be a number of businesses that slap a whole bunch of four-letter acronyms on their front page. And there will be venture-capital money going into those businesses. And then there will be a sorting of the good from the bad. Not only do I think that's inevitable, I think that any energy spent attempting to avoid that is probably pointless. What I do hope comes out of that is that there are some fairly real criticisms of Web services, because right now the ideas as they are being put forth have a couple of very significant weaknesses.

One of the things that made the Web the Web is this sort of very narrow list of primitive concepts that you were allowed to work with. There is a URL; there are a handful of methods -- get, post, put, delete; and then there are a handful of ways of including extra data -- a query string, an additional path, standard input and a cookie. And that's it. I mean I can write down what you need to use as a Web developer on a postcard.

Because Web services has said, "We're going to start from scratch and we're going to make everything not only definable but we can even have late binding," it's all up in the air again. So my hope is that when there is the crescendo of hype and counterhype, that at least some of it has to do with the technology and the places where Web services have real weaknesses that need to be addressed, rather than just the fact that there are venture capitalists who don't know what to do with their money.

Koman: So that seems to suggest that if Microsoft can offer a good definable framework for Web services in .Net, it's likely that they could win.

Shirky: Well, yes, although there's an open question in my mind about what constitutes "winning" in this world. And this is the big issue as always with Microsoft. Microsoft does not like to win 40 percent of anything. And yet in a world of interoperability, I'd argue that 40 percent is about the high-water mark. We've seen Microsoft say with the HailStorm announcement that for the first time they're going to allow Microsoft software to be used on non-Microsoft devices. The real question is whether or not down the road they will attempt to restrict, alter or reverse that idea in order to try to transfer the monopoly from the PC desktop directly into the network.

I know that there are elements in Microsoft that would like to do that. On the other hand, the world is more interoperable than it was when Windows 95 launched, so Microsoft has steadily been losing ground on the ability to lock out interoperability. I'm hopeful that this will be another phase in that change from Microsoft being a monopolist to being a significant competitor. So I don't think that there's any doubt that .Net will be a significant and ultimately easy-to-use and adaptable framework for Web services. I think the question is how much openness can that company tolerate?

Koman: Well, Dave Stutz would say to us that Microsoft realizes that they can't own every platform that they want to play on and so interop is a good thing for them because it lets them reach people where they don't own their platform.

Shirky:And were Dave Stutz the CEO, I would absolutely take that to the bank.

You know, I've had these conversations with Stutz, I count Stutz as a friend. I think he's fantastic and I think his instincts are exactly in that mode, but I also sat on the stage [at OSCON 2001] with both Craig Mundie and David Stutz and I sensed that what Mundie was saying showed that the management committee is being guided by a different set of principles than Stutz is using in his work.

So again, Microsoft hires smart developers, they ship good code. There's no reason to think that a Microsoft without the desktop monopoly would not nevertheless be a ferocious competitor and very successful in their space. But the strategy tax that Microsoft is willing to pay in order to preserve or extend its desktop monopoly is in many cases is very, very high, and the question I think that's before us is, "Does that strategy tax extend to things like breaking SOAP or launching copyright- or patent-based lawsuits for otherwise open technologies?" And the jury's obviously very much out on that.

Koman: So moving on to the subject of another panel you're hosting at the conference, is P2P dead?

Shirky: Well, you can't have a conference like this without talking about the P2P backlash and the attempts to bury P2P. There was one criticism that it was overbroad, that there's nothing to hold these technologies together except TCP/IP. There was another criticism that came from Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal that said it was an investment fad that's sort of come and gone as quickly as push and so forth. And there's no particular agenda for that panel except to say we need to talk about that. There's obviously a lot of hype that came out around peer-to-peer, and I think we essentially need to sort out what are the real and underlying changes from what are sort of transient effects, and that panel is an attempt to sort of bring those issues up. I actually don't know what people are going to say except that I think it's going to be an interesting conversation.

Koman: One thing we haven't really talked about that is actually front and center is the recording industry versus Napster, and the way that Napster has been tarred as an application of pirates, and the way that P2P has been tarred by Napster as the technology of pirates.

Shirky: The Napster situation is obviously still emerging. You know, I think that Napster is going to be one of those technologies that sort of presages a new world even though the company that founded it may not last ...

Koman: I should just expound on the question actually. I just got a call from a reporter who's working on a story apparently about some congressmen that are saying that P2P networks are a haven of pornography. So, it's another black mark on P2P and sort of an underlying theme here is that these things [P2P applications] are just all bad. They're at best about stealing music. At worst, they're about child pornography.

Shirky: Right. Well, any time a technology comes along that lets people do something new outside of an area that was previously heavily controlled, there will always be elements of society that are concerned about that. I mean it happened with the telegraph. It happened with the telephone. One of the big concerns when the telephone came about was that men and women would be able to talk to one another directly without going through intermediaries, and God knows what that could lead to. This has been a constant theme. The car was, of course, seen to be a tremendously destructive force because freedom of mobility outside of your community meant heaven knows who you would be consorting with and so forth.

The easiest thing I think, or rather perhaps the most important thing to say about many of these criticisms is that, of course, they're true. When you have a car and you have a higher degree of personal mobility, you do meet different people. Plainly the telephone has had a huge effect in breaking down aspects of traditional society. And there is certainly some loss in those things. I think what we have to consistently stand up for is to say that the gain in freedom in greater than the loss.

Every medium ever invented has been used to distribute pornography. That's something that's true about humanity, not about technology. And I don't mean in the past 50 years. I mean since the Babylonians figured out writing. So this is not even a criticism. That's a criticism that can be leveled at any given technology. I think what people are particularly concerned about is for the past 100 years all of our two-way media has been narrow-band, which is to say I can only address one or two other people -- the telephone, the fax, letters. And all of our broadcast media are one-way: radio, television, and so forth. To suddenly have a two-way mass media threatens a huge number of vested interests who much prefer the bottlenecks we have.

This is not the first piece of propaganda about peer-to-peer; it won't be the last. And I think the two things that we have to stand up for are: First, the enormous amount of intellectual property created in the world today destined for an audience of five rather than 5 million -- which is to say, I'm writing a report for my boss and three other people. And any technology that makes it easier to share intellectual property is good, and we will have to work out the issues surrounding copyright holders. But there is simply no point in suggesting that some technology ought not to be allowed to exist because it changes the way intellectual property is dealt with.

The second thing is that there are lots and lots of normal models for selling intellectual property as a service, rather than as a product. The Recording Industry Association of America is mostly in this game to save their own skins. They're not actually acting on behalf of the music industry. The music industry knows perfectly well how to make money off of music as a service. They do it with every radio station in the world every day. So the sort of narrow sets of concerns around Napster and peer-to-peer technologies I think can't be allowed to distract us from the fact that this is a huge boon to personal freedom and in particular it's a huge increase in the flexibility and fluidity with which we can deal with intellectual property, and that new business models are going to be required to deal with that, that the genie is not going back in the bottle.

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