In 2001, if you listened to digital music, you did it with a large folder of MP3 files. How you acquired them is probably best left between you and a priest, but you may have ripped them from a CD, downloaded them from a file sharing service, or bought them from one of a few nascent download sites.
Whichever option you picked, you’d play them on your computer with a program built for the task. And if you were lucky enough to have an early standalone MP3 player, it was probably made by another company again.
Whether or not MP3s interested you, you probably bought your music on CD, and had a couple of players in the house – maybe a portable one and a hi-fi. Your headphones, of course, connected to whatever you were using, be that a simple Discman or a fancy Nomad Jukebox, with a normal 3.5mm plug.
Today, for millions of people around the world, all those companies have been replaced by one: Apple. You listen to Apple Music on your Apple iPhone through your Apple AirPods. Sure, competitors exist, but with each passing year they struggle to offer a service on parity. Want to use headphones made by a different company? You need to buy a dongle to plug them in if they’re wired, and you won’t have access to the fancy new “spatial audio” streams Apple now offers if they’re Bluetooth. Want to switch to Spotify? You can, but make sure you never accidentally hit “play” when nothing’s on, or Apple Music will start right back up.
Nostalgia is an ill-fitting emotion for the technology sector, where exponential growth rules. The phone in your pocket – possibly even the watch on your wrist – is substantially more powerful than the desktop computer you may have stashed those music files on, and is connected via a cellular connection a hundred times faster than the 56K modem you used to download your MP3s to an internet unimaginably larger and more useful.
But alongside those wild improvements have come other changes with a more mixed outcome. A concentration of power at the top of the industry; a focus on building easy-to-use gadgets over powerful general-purpose devices; and a shift from programs and files to websites and APIs: all have left us in this slightly run-down sci-fi future. Simply put, nothing works with anything else any more, and it’s starting to become a problem.
Interoperability is the technical term for what we’ve lost as tech has matured. Software can be interoperable, either through common, open file formats, or through different programs speaking directly to one another, and so too can hardware: open standards are what allow you to use any headphones with any music player, for instance, or buy a TV without worrying if it will work with your streaming set-up.
It was a hard-fought victory. Think, for instance, of the hassle of receiving a text document a few years back. Not only would you be lucky to be able to open it using a different program from the one that made it – you would frequently need to have exactly the same version of the program, or face issues.
Some of those difficulties were deliberate. Microsoft’s .doc file format, for instance, was used by MS Word for decades, with key details kept hidden behind a restrictive licence. The company very deliberately didn’t want competitors to be able to make software that could read and make Word files without paying it for the trouble. Microsoft’s market dominance meant that it could hamper competing software with the opposite approach: refusing to support their file formats on its own platforms, effectively limiting the ability to collaborate.
Even with the best will in the world, though, it’s a hard goal to achieve. A notorious instalment of the XKCD webcomic details one pitfall: “Situation: there are 14 competing standards,” says the caption to two people discussing how they need to come up with a better way to make all these things work together. The punchline is that “Soon: there are 15 competing standards.”
But by the dawn of the mobile era, there had been progress. The success of standards such as MP3 for music, JPEG for pictures and MPEG for movies had led to a blossoming of consumer tech that could display and play media, while the internet had helped push compatibility to the front of users’ minds: when your pool of collaborators is larger than the people you can walk a floppy disk over to, it’s more important than ever that your software work with everyone, to the point that even Microsoft switched Word over to an open standard.
And then the industry changed.
When the iPhone came out, it was a very different device from what it became. With no App Store, and a model that required a computer to sync to on a regular basis, it was firmly an accessory to the machines where the real business happened. But even as the App Store arrived and the mobile economy flourished, one limitation stuck around: the phones eschewed the old files-and-folders-based model entirely, in favour of each app having access to its own data and nothing else. It would prove consequential.
In the PC files-and-folders era, interoperability was, ultimately, down to users. Software may or may not be compatible, but the decision to try to make a file in one program and open it in another was entirely up to you. You could use two programs made by developers that had never even heard of each other and, so long as they worked with the same open file format, there was interoperability. That’s not true any more.
Even as updates to mobile phone operating systems have allowed apps more freedom to send data back and forth, the same freedom hasn’t been restored to the user. And when two apps are negotiating whether or not to work together, it’s more than just a simple question of technology.
“There’s a ton of issues here,” says Ari Lightman, professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, “but I think one of the major ones is economics. As data becomes more of an asset, it becomes difficult to exchange that data across multiple different parties in an ecosystem, because they’re monetising that asset. And there’s also a lot of stipulations associated with what happens should there be a violation.”
For many companies, the obvious way around this is to give up on those tricky negotiations altogether – or to hand them off to a larger, more powerful third party. “One of the things that we’re seeing more of, because there’s a consumer push towards this, is using things like Google and Facebook as data sinks,” Lightman says. “Consumers are pushed to say, ‘Well, I want to use this other app,’ a dating app or a productivity app, ‘but I don’t want to fill in all this information, I just want a connection between the two, and I want to shove all the information that I have in Google into this app.’”
Sharing everything you have via Facebook or Google is interoperability of a sort. It’s certainly convenient to be able to log in to Tinder without typing a password, and to automatically populate your dating profile with pictures lifted straight from Instagram. But it’s necessarily limited, both to the services offered by these big companies, and by the fact that they’re not going to help competitors. Notoriously, for instance, Facebook blocked Twitter-owned short video app Vine from this sort of interoperability because, according to an FTC complaint, it wanted to kneecap its rival’s chances of succeeding in the field.
There are exceptions. Perhaps the most famous service bucking the trend has the unwieldy name “IFTTT”, short for “If this then that”. The site’s goal is to be a sort of plumbing for the internet, letting users link together disparate services in all the ways they are normally barred from doing. You can use it, for instance, to send a tweet every time you like a YouTube video, to play the radio when you turn on the (smart) lights in the morning, or just to wire up a big button that orders pizza from Domino’s when you slam it.
But even IFTTT has simply smoothed over the difficulties with making things work together, rather than solving them completely. In fact, its very presence has hindered further openness, some users say: Amazon’s smart home devices, for instance, bar users from building automation using other tools, even if they’re more powerful. For a company of Amazon’s size, simplicity isn’t just a selling point to users: it’s also appealing for Amazon itself. Better to funnel people down one supported service than have to train staff on how to deal with myriad potential problems.
For some, there’s only one outcome that will properly fix things: regulation. Damien Geradin is outside counsel for the Coalition for App Fairness, an industry group that represents companies including Spotify, Tile and Tinder, and has been leading the charge to make interoperability a legal requirement.
“When it comes to Apple, they really like this vertically integrated business model,” Geradin says. “I don’t think that we can say that interoperability has been lost, because it’s never been there. It’s been like that from day one. They like to do everything in house, and they don’t like to make things compatible.
“Now, I think that nobody would challenge that when Apple was a very small company. But now it has become this giant. And it has become a bottleneck in the sense that if you want your app to be distributed on the on iOS devices, you have to go to the App Store. You cannot live without Apple if you’re an app developer. You can’t say ‘screw Apple’, but we want to be able to interoperate, we want to be freer.”
Geradin’s group is spearheading a complaint with the European Commission demanding that Apple restore some of that freedom. It’s just one of many such pushes across the world: in America, Epic Games is in the midst of a bruising legal showdown with Apple over much the same issues, while Amazon, Facebook and Google have been dragged into identical battles over their control of their own platforms.
There’s a real chance that we come out of this decade with some of tech’s largest players legally required to begin the painful process of opening up their platforms to the competition – and so, slowly, restoring some of that dream.
In fact, some of the change is coming already. In April, Facebook, seemingly to pre-empt regulatory enforcement, announced an expansion to its “data portability tool”, a feature of the site that lets users send their data from Facebook to other sites and services.
“The ecosystem we are building to support data portability will not come to fruition without regulation that clarifies which data should be made portable and who is responsible for protecting data once it has been transferred,” wrote Facebook’s Steve Satterfield, director of privacy and public policy, in a post announcing the company’s latest feat of interoperability: the ability to directly transfer text posts on Facebook into Google Docs.
Chief executives are being warned to “think twice before they tweet” after the boss of takeaway company Just Eat Takeaway was told his Twitter spat with Uber threatened to undermine the firm’s reputation.
Jitse Groen this week became the latest in a growing list of chief executives to be rebuked by customers, investors and even regulators over ill-judged tweets.
Cat Rock Capital Management, an activist investor which has a 4.7% stake in Just Eat, highlighted Groen’s Twitter battle with Uber boss Dara Khosrowshahi as an example of outbursts that damaged the brand. The investor said Groen’s tweets had partly led to the firm being “deeply undervalued and vulnerable to takeover bids at far below its intrinsic value”.
Earlier this year Groen had a rant at financial analysts on Twitter, claiming that “some can’t even do basic maths”. He tweeted that he was “amazed how bad these analysts have become … All of them mix up definitions. It’s unbelievable.”
Brand and marketing expert Mark Borkowski said Groen’s case highlighted the difficulty executives face when trying to engage with customers on the platform.
“Everyone sees Twitter as a huge marketing opportunity that can drive a business forward, and it really can,” Borkowski said. “But these bosses must stop and think twice before they tweet, as just one misjudged tweet can send their share price plunging.”
Possibly the most expensive tweets ever sent were posted by Elon Musk, the maverick boss of electric car company Tesla, in 2018. The US Securities and Exchange Commission fined Musk and Tesla $20m each after he tweeted that he had “funding secured” to take the company private at $420 a share. The regulator said the tweet, which sent Tesla’s share price up by as much as 13%, violated securities law. As part of the settlement, Musk was ordered to step down as Tesla’s chairman.
Musk’s tweets continued to anger some investors. Pirc, an influential adviser to shareholders including the UK’s local authority pension funds, last year recommended that investors voted against Musk’s re-election to the Tesla board because his tweets posed “a serious risk of reputational harm to the company and its shareholders”.
“Twitter is all about personality,” Borkowski said. “While Musk’s tweets can be very controversial, they fit with his brand. Twitter is perfect for renegades, mavericks and disruptor brands. It’s much harder for well-established brands with solid reputations, if something goes wrong for them they risk damage to their hard-earned brand.
“People now think that to run a successful business, you have to be on social media and every brand has to have a Twitter account,” he said. “The chief executives see that the bosses of their rivals have a Twitter profile, and they feel they have to have one too.”
Borkowski said some bosses have been very successful at building a presence and personality on Twitter, and using their platforms to promote social issues such as LGBTQ+ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement (as well as promote their brand and products).
James Timpson, the chief executive of cobbler Timpson, this week celebrated passing 100,000 followers on his account on which he weaves photos of his colleagues working in shops with posts tackling tax avoidance and prisoner reform.
This week, he responded to Boris Johnson’s proposal to create “fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs” of people found guilty of antisocial behaviour with a tweet suggesting offenders should be helped into work instead.
Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, has won praise for using Twitter to successfully pressure the governor of Indiana into revising proposed legislation that had threatened to allow discrimination against gay people on religious grounds.
Researchers at Harvard Business School and Duke University said Cook “effectively framed the debate using social media at a time when opinions were being formed and the impact went beyond the political”.
Borkowski suggested that before chief executives tweet they should “consider whether they have the personality and temperament to get the tone right each time”.
“There is nothing more inelegant than a chief executive going after rivals publicly on Twitter,” he said.
It was exactly that sort of behaviour that Cat Rock had accused Groen of undertaking. When Uber Eats announced earlier this year that it would take on Just Eat in Germany, Groen lashed out in a tweet directed at Khosrowshahi, accusing him of “trying to depress our share price”.
Khosrowshahi replied that perhaps Groen should “pay a little less attention to your short term stock price and more attention to your Tech and Ops”. That sparked Groen to reply “thank you for the advice, and then if I may .. Start paying taxes, minimum wage and social security premiums before giving a founder advice on how he should run his business”.
Alex Captain, Cat Rock’s founder, said: “The response should not happen on Twitter. It should happen on a credible forum with the facts, data, and analysis that the company has at its disposal.”
A Just Eat spokesperson said: “Just Eat Takeaway.com has a regular dialogue with all its shareholders and we take all their views very seriously.”
Comment Amazon Web Services has announced the retirement of its third cloud service: the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, aka EC2 Classic.
A July 28 post by AWS Chief Evangelist Jeff Barr explains that the service was superseded in 2009 by Amazon Virtual Private Cloud, then again by Virtual Private Clouds for Everyone in 2013.
Barr’s post explains that customers who signed up with AWS since December 4, 2013, couldn’t use EC2 Classic unless they specifically requested it. The bulk of AWS customers will not, therefore, be inconvenienced by the service’s retirement.
Those that do use the service need to be on their toes, because AWS has set a deadline of August 15, 2022 – after which it expects “no remaining EC2 Classic resources present in any AWS account,” and all migrations to something else will be complete.
As a reminder, on October 31, 2021, AWS will disable EC2 Classic for accounts that don’t use the service and stop selling reserved instances. Barr writes that AWS will work with customers to make those migrations as easy as can be.
“We don’t plan to disrupt any workloads and will do our best to help you to meet these dates,” Barr explains.
The AWS man also reminisces about how EC2 became a big hit, fast. “We helped Animoto to scale to a then-amazing 3,400 instances when their Facebook app went viral,” he writes.
AWS has scaled things rather higher since: in 40th place on the June 2021 update to the Top 500 list of Earth’s mightiest supercomputers was a 172,692-core machine that ran for just 24 minutes in the Amazonian cloud.
EC2 was AWS’s third service. It debuted in August 2006, after the March 2006 debut of the Simple Storage Service and the July arrival of Simple Queue Service.
That all three sparked a vast and important change in business computing is not in dispute. Service providers had previously rented remotely-located compute and storage, but AWS made them more accessible and scalable than predecessors. AWS prices were also shockingly low – in a good way – and its services took off.
The Register cannot think of an enterprise computing product or vendor that has not been influenced by AWS and EC2. Makers of on-prem IT have all striven to become more cloud-like ever since EC2 debuted – both in terms of the user experience and by charging for consumption rather than up-front. Whole new software development and deployment practices have emerged to take advantage of elastic resources sold as-a-service.
EC2 has also left a cultural footprint, as the likes of Netflix realized that cloud computing offered previously unavailable possibilities.
AWS brings in more than $50bn of annual revenue, and is widely regarded as the dominant force in cloud computing.
Barr’s post states that AWS will give EC2 Classic “a gold watch and a well-deserved sendoff!”
The Creating Our Future initiative is seeking 10,000 ideas on which to base Ireland’s next science and research agenda.
The Government of Ireland is hosting a ‘national brainstorm’ to guide the future of science and research in the country.
First announced last month, a nationwide conversation about research and innovation has officially kicked off today (28 July) at CreatingOurFuture.ie.
The online portal aims to collect 10,000 ideas from a broad section of the Irish public. It will be open for submissions from now until the end of November.
‘Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas’ – SIMON HARRIS, TD
“Covid-19 has highlighted, like never before, the vital role that research has played in mitigating challenges facing the country,” said Minister for Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris, TD. “But we have many more challenges and opportunities that research rigour and analytical excellence can help us with to build a better future for Ireland.”
Harris added: “Good ideas and curiosity are the starting point for most research, and nobody has a monopoly on good ideas. So, we are asking everyone to submit that idea that they have been thinking about, or have a conversation with their neighbours, host an event with a researcher or in your local community to think about what might make a difference and let us know.”
Events will be held across the country until the Creating Our Future ideas portal closes, inviting and encouraging citizens and communities to engage with the project.
The national initiative is itself an idea borrowed from similar efforts in other countries. A key inspiration was a programme driven by FWO, the Flanders research foundation. Launched in the spring of 2018, its Question for Science campaign received 10,559 responses, and has returned answers to more than 1,500.
These questions formed the basis of the Flemish Science Agenda, a strategy for science and innovation that is built on societal issues and citizens’ curiosity. Questions asked of FWO included ‘What is the effect of the 24-hour economy on psychological health?’ and ‘How can we avoid war and violence?’.
The Irish effort is hoped to deepen relationships between the Irish science community and the public it serves, and the resounding call from organisers is for all to participate.
“This is an important opportunity to contribute to shaping future research. I encourage everyone to get involved,” said Taoiseach Micheál Martin, TD.
“This isn’t for any one section of society, we want to engage everyone in conversations in communities across the country, to inspire curiosity and generate ideas for research that will shape our future.”
All responses submitted to the portal will be collated and shared with an independent expert panel of researchers and civil society leaders.
There is also a Creating Our Future advisory forum chaired by Nokia Bell Labs global head of external collaboration programmes, Julie Byrne. In this role, Byrne brings researchers together for collaborative work and she herself has almost 30 years’ experience in engineering, tech and research.
“Over the coming months we will have many conversations about research across the country to gather ideas from our communities that research can tackle to create a better future for all of us,” she said. “I encourage everyone to get involved so that we capture ideas from all communities across the country.”
The results of the campaign will be published in a report by the end of 2021. This will go on to inform Ireland’s future strategy for research, innovation, science and technology.
Previously, Science Foundation Ireland’s director of science for society called on Irish citizens join a mass public debate about lessons learned throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dr Ruth Freeman spoke at Future Human in 2020 about the importance of including the voice of the public in shaping the future of science.
“Giving people more of a say in their future is clearly the right and democratic thing to do, and it might just make for better science as well,” she said.