Some thoughts on DataPortability.Org, (and data portability)

Data portability is an idea long championed, and becoming more important all the time.  As we continue to load our online lives on to various social networking sites, the concept of making it easy to get that information back off again, and re-using the information on the next big site without having to start over from scratch are compelling, reasonable, and just plain logical.  Why would you want it any other way?.

Like the somewhat drawn out death of DRM for music, it’s only a matter of time until the data you enter into a social networking site is in your control, to delete, to move, or to share.  And yet, reasons for keeping users locked into those social networking sites are compelling.  It’s no secret that once you invest a lot of time and energy into a site, or make friends there, you are far more likely to stay.  Walled gardens means captive audiences.  However forcing lock-in has a lot of downside, too.  First, it’s not very friendly, and shouldn’t friends networks be friendly?  Users, too, have shown an increasing reluctance to try new experiences, since it means starting over from scratch, spamming your friends with invites, and locking yourself in all over again.

Last week Facebook announced some changes that may start to change that, allowing Facebook  applications to be used on sites outside of Facebook.  Microsoft as well has some examples of this kind of thinking, opening up portions of Live ID authentication and Messenger, with more news to come as early as Mix08.  One of the advantages Microsoft and Windows Live offer is the stability and staying power of Microsoft, as you can be pretty sure that the information you store via Live ID for example will still be around years from now, something that most start-ups can’t say.  Facebook, too, looks like it will have staying power, and although it has made some mistakes along the way, the platform is moving forward.

Digg.com is the latest website to join in with DataPortability.Org, an organization with lofty goals and not much to show for it so far, but that may all change soon.  Microsoft joined a few weeks ago, joining representatives from the likes of Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, SixApart, and Flickr.

Dare Obasanjo, a pre-eminent voice in matters such as these, weighed in a couple of times on the subject, at first saying:

The short version is that it reminds me of AttentionTrust, long on intention and short on implementation.

and then, a few days later, after Microsoft had joined, he had a bit more to say:

However we have real problems to solve as an industry. The lack of interoperability between various social software applications is troubling given that the Internet (especially the Web) got to be a success today by embracing interoperability instead of being about walled gardens fighting over who can build the prettiest gilded cage for their prisoners customers. The fact that when interoperability happens, it is in back room deals (e.g. Google OpenSocial, Microsoft’s conversations with startups, etc) instead of being open to all using standard and unencumbered protocols is similarly troubling. Even worse, insecure practices that expose social software users to privacy violations have become commonplace due to the lack of a common framework for interoperability.

As far as I can tell, Dataportability.org seems like a good forum for various social software vendors to start talking about how we can get to a world where there is actual interoperability between social software applications. I’d like to see real meat fall out of this effort not fluff. One of the representatives Microsoft has chosen is the dev lead from the product team I am on (Inder Sethi) which implies we want technical discussion of protocols and technologies not just feel good jive. We’ll also be sending a product planning/marketing type as well (John Richards) to make sure the end user perspective is also being covered. You can assume that even though I am not on the working group in person, I will be there in spirit since I communicate with both John and Inder on a regular basis.

It’s a good sign that DataPortability.Org is gaining traction.  It’s also a good sign that Microsoft has joined.  While Microsoft certainly can’t be thought of as a leader in the move to open up our data, it has been making serious strides to open up a number of its platforms, and a common vision shared by the members of DataPortability.Org could make control of our own data something closer to a reality.