I’ve harped on many times about how I think centrally controlled services like Facebook are the antithesis of what the Internet was supposed to be about - a distributed, decentralised place with authority controlled at the leaves by those with most interest in maintaining it, rather than some corporate hub holding all the cards.
Well, it seems like a small bunch of companies are starting to latch on to this idea too, a welcome respite from the huge number of ventures that just want to be the new singular nexus of your internet life. Google Wave certainly ‘gets it’, if the reality reflects the stated vision where the open-source software can be run anywhere, not just on Google’s servers. And Opera Unite is making the right kind of noises for me too, even if right now the service is embryonic.
In essence, it’s a semantically richer, more secure version of BitTorrent - the ability to share files, photos and media within interfaces dedicated to that purpose, serve web pages, and chat, but by making direct connections with your peers rather than going through a centralised hosting service. Opera Unite provides the software to perform the hosting from your own devices, and provides the discovery and network trust systems to allow people to hook up.
There are lots of issues with this approach of course - such as whether you trust the hosting software not to punch holes in your local security, whether you really want to have the bandwidth issues of self-hosting, what happens when your machine is off, etc. Right now, I don’t think it’s that workable as a replacement for centralised systems, but that’s not the point - the point is that the principle of entrusting all your unencrypted data to a single online entity is eventually not going to be good enough anymore, and we need to be developing alternative approaches. If the future is truly in the cloud, we need far more than what the cloud offers right now - which is to say services that while user-friendly, require you to give up far more control over your data than is feasible for anything remotely important. Sure, you’re happy to put photos on Facebook, and Twitter about all those things that you don’t mind the world knowing, but that’s a very specific, non-critical subset of the data we all increasingly need to hold. Would you be happy to scan your bank statements and put them on Facebook, even if you set them to private? Of course not - but if the cloud is to realise its potential, these are the kinds of harder applications we need to try to address.
I’m not saying Opera Unite addresses that - not even close. But the fact that people are exploring alternative approaches to the 100% centralised model is a positive sign to me. We need to start tackling how we use entirely public transport & repository systems (ie the cloud) to securely store and exchange important and sensitive data, and I say that’s impossible to address with an entirely centralisd model, because a centralised model focusses control in too few hands. Encryption gives us the ability to store and transport secure information in plain sight, but it’s traditionally a very tricky thing to make easy to use for the general public, particularly when multiple parties and ‘controlled’ sharing is required. Thus, one approach is to focus on securing the transport instead (which is easier, and why SSL is ubiquitous) and lock down access to the leaves more tightly. Opera Unite is an experiment in the leaf model and may well inform the process, leading to more innovation in this area down the road.