Once upon a time there was POP3, and it was all so simple...
This week's news that Apple is introducing its own proprietary messaging protocol was buried in yesterday's iCloud announcements. Maybe it's too geeky for the Twitter-besotted press corps, and too mundane for many analysts. But it's very, very significant. If RIM's BBM is anything to go by, Apple's iMessaging will be a huge success.
Sod Twitter: this means a significant chunk of human communication will be taken away from applications that use open standards, and drawn into a proprietary silo. It also means that the slightly creepy utopian dream, that everything anyone thinks is going to be recorded and accessible, also recedes.
Sorry, Hive-Minders – but maybe most of us think that's not such a bad thing. And to find out what we're chattering about, spooks will have to tap the wires, rather just use Google. Fair enough: we ought to be making them work for their tax dollars.
The various internet and telco standards bodies are largely to blame here, exhibiting all the foresight and vision and technical prowess of major record labels. And we can hardly blame Apple for wanting to take advantage of our need to communicate, and trying to improve on it. But the fact is the self-organising internet community – the ITU, GMSA and OMA – have all been found wanting, and have failed to keep up with the demand for messaging that naturally spans public and private networks, and both real-time personal (IM and SMS) and real-time broadcast needs (Twitter, Facebook). Now it looks as if that brief period when it looked like everyone would use applications that follow RFCs was just a brief historical anomaly.
The reality is that much of this person-to-person communication was always in silos to begin with – and would always evade the angle brackets of HTML. SMS text messaging remained resolutely private, for example. IM was "owned" by internet services companies, and was never fully interoperable. It always required some funky on-the-wire dissembling to create a universal IM client. And Exchange was similarly outside the loop, being regarded by Microsoft as a prop.
What we now see is really a little different: with vendors insisting on creating their own walled gardens. For some analysts, the value of RIM is now entirely that of its own proprietary BBM. This is much loved by its users, and the BBM screen becomes the user's gateway into the device; it's really the default start screen. The recent trend of creating proprietary messaging silos really started with the explosion of Facebook's popularity, which took a lot of casual communication away from webmail and into a proprietary service. As I pointed out here, (Facebook: Privatising the internet, one Poke at a time), this is one of the most significant, but least-noticed trends. Since I wrote that piece, Twitter too has attempted to make communications much more of a walled garden, but tried to do so very stealthily. It has removed or limited RSS feeds, and imposed its preferred gateway on third-party developers. This means you really have to be on Twitter to take full advantage of it, rather than using RSS as the protocol. All of which means it's much more of a walled garden than before. From a business point-of-view, this is sensible, and probably long overdue. But it makes Twitter's claim to be the guardian of an open communication network much harder to justify.
For its part, Facebook has extended a limp and sweaty hand of co-operation towards the email world. (But in Mark Zuckerberg's very peculiar way: he thinks "Subject" lines are superfluous, because it slows the user down. We think the lad should drink less caffeine.) You can read Facebook Messages in an email client – but Facebook isn't really interested in doing much more than that, for it doesn't really need to.
I find it difficult to get particularly stoked up about any of this, I merely remark on how differently things turn out than we might expect. Ten years ago, we thought open internet protocols would conquer all the world's silos and walled gardens. But now walled gardens are going up faster than wind turbines with a feed-in tariff and landowner's subsidy. BBM, iMessaging, Facebook's pokes and messages, and Twitter's tweets are all examples. Their development is a pointed reminder of how standards and innovation don't always march hand in hand – and how, at the end of the day, nobody really cares that messaging isn't "unified".