If you can’t be first – Federate

There is no point in being the only person in the world with a telephone, or a fax machine, or to have these, but nobody you want to communicate with has one. You could be the only person you know who has a mobile phone, and as long as your friends have telephone land lines you can talk to them – because the networks interoperate.

Networks need a critical mass to be usable, and the large social media systems, such as Facebook and WhatsApp have turned this into a ‘winner takes all’ game, in which they are the winners. It is at least possible to see a Tweet without being a user, but Whatsapp divides the world very definitively into those who have it and those who don’t. Anyone who has a suitable smartphone can join Whatsapp for no financial payment, but paying instead, not only with information about themselves, but everyone they know. Although Facebook pages can be ‘public’, they are not truly public, they can be seen by anyone is on Facebook, but if you look at them from a web browser which does not know (and tell Facebook) your details (for example in a Private or Incognito window) you will see how you are simply persuading non Facebook users to join.

There are people and organisations who do not like this, but many of them agree with the ‘Winner takes all’ – they just have a different idea about who should be the winner. Most of the systems which claim superiority to Whatsapp, for example, want to replace it with another system, which will be ‘better’ because it uses their walled garden rather than Whatsapp’s.

The answer, unless you have a serious shot at first place, is to stop being greedy and aiming to ‘own’ the market and federate with other systems, adding value for your users, though improved user experience, possibly well targeted advertising, additional services specific to your offering, but Federate – in other words talk over a well defined, open, even if evolving protocol with others. This is a way email and the web work, and chat and social media could work that way too.

For chat there is a stable protocol called Jabber or XMPP (eXtensble Message and Presence Protocol) which is federated very much like email (SMTP – Simple Mail Transfer Protocol). It has addresses which look like email addresses, e.g., and like email can messages Google used XMPP for its Gtalk chat (and which was able to talk to other XMPP implementations until they stopped), underlies Facebook Messenger (basically XMPP using your Facebook user as the user name and it can only talk to other Facebook users), Whatapp (uses your mobile number as the username and can only talk to other Whatsapp users).

Competitors to the market leader should try federating their offering, and working out ways to provide a better offering by using them. They also think an economic case, which might be to prevent your user base migrating to your market dominant competitor, in the case of a commercial, or a desire for an ‘everybody wins’ game for governments or social or charitable organisations.

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