Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bad Writing

The picture is the logo for Flattr a micropayment system.

My writing is really bad. I think it was John Michael Greer who offered that there is a certain amount of bad writing that writer have to get out before good writing can commence. Maybe it wasn't him, but this blog is one place I can get some of my bad writing out of the way. It's embarrassing to think of readers. But I'm very appreciative of Comrade 27 for taking what I write as possibly containing a little sense. I am trying to learn how to make some sense.

Recently among other things I wrote about the vision of Steve Jobs. Jobs takes design as primary and therefore favors integration over fragmentation. In a fragmented way I tried to take the side in favor of fragmentation. But Jobs's success is good evidence he's right about fragmentation, at least so far as too much fragmentation is untenable. So my point isn't against design, but rather it's not the only necessary thing.

I'm using Ubuntu as my Linux distribution of choice. A big reason for that is I'm not very computer savvy and Ubuntu is very well put together for people like me.

One doesn't have to be technically inclined to know that free and open source software FOSS, sometimes FLOSS, free/libre/open source software is something significant when it comes to computers and computing. Discussions of FOSS can be very broad and deep and I can't keep up, except to say that there is a moral core to the philosophy--morality meaning the ways we treat others. The FOSS community makes a distinction about free; their meaning is free as in speech not as in "free beer." The point being that "free" doesn't necessarily mean "no cost." Indeed there are commercial aspects to some of the distributions of Linux.

Mark Shuttleworth is associated with Ubuntu much like Steve Jobs comes to mind with Apple. In September Shuttleworth responding in part to criticisms about Ubuntu not contributing enough code to the kernel and core GNOME infrastructure wrote a blog post about what he views as Ubuntu's contribution to the Linux community. His answer really boils down to design.

Clearly both Mark Shuttleworth and Steve Jobs are serious businessmen and both see the importance of design. Jobs's rant on his call was about Google, but he was talking about bets about different business approaches. Shuttleworth's business play with Ubuntu represents an even clearer difference between Apple than Google.

It's not hard for me to imagine Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, talk about winning the whole shebang along with Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison and the like. It's harder for me to imagine Larry Page and Sergey Brin the founders of Google talking that way. And certainly, at least in the context of Ubuntu, I can't imagine Mark Shuttleworth talking about winning in the same way other executives do. There's a different game at play concurrently with the old game.

Weeks back I began writing about social currency sometimes called Whuffie. Online social currency is an idea that lots of people have been trying to work out for quite a long time. I think often about what sort of incentives would increase online collaboration.

Recently I noticed that the New York Times is suing Kachingle. Kachingle's tag is "Social cents for digital stuff." In short it's a way for users to direct microdonations to online creators. My reaction to the take-down order by lawyers for the Times made me smile. I appreciate those who tilt at windmills because I so often do. Afterwards, I berate myself for being so foolish; still I do believe there are battles that ought to be fought even when winning is unlikely. Kachingle hasn't a chance.

I think the idea of Kachingle is stellar nonetheless. Flattr is a somewhat similar service to Kachingle. The premise with Flattr is that you have to give to get. So each month you load a small amount of money into an account and then you may click on Flattr buttons people have installed next to their content. At the end of the month the money you've uploaded is split among the people whose Flattr buttons you've clicked.

In RhythmBox the music player that comes installed with Ubuntu releases 10.04 and greater are three music stores. Ubuntu One is Ubuntu's store. Magnatune is a store that allows unlimited downloads for a monthly subscription fee. And Jamendo operates a pay scheme that bears resemblance to Flattr.

I had thought I'd seen Flattr buttons on artist pages I'd discovered through Jamendo, but I was probably mistaken or confused. I have seen Flattr buttons on blog posts by developers of applications. I thought I'd seen enough Flattr buttons that it would be worth loading a small amount of money so that I could Flattr people. Alas, once having the money loaded I'm having a hard time locating Flattr buttons I want to click!

I suggested in an earlier post that a pure reputation currency might be something that Microsoft could implement. My thinking was there are Microsoft users everywhere. There are lots of people online whom I'd like to Flattr, the problem is that none of them have signed up for Flattr. I'd like to be able to Flattr anybody I want. So while I'm keen on Kachingle, Flattr, Jamendo and other sorts of services that allow positive feedback to online creators the lack of a very widespread way to do so is a real drawback. I can't remember where, but I saw Mark Shuttleworth interviewed and he was asked whether Ubuntu was considering a service like Flattr. He said they were. But of course on the desktop Ubuntu has a rather low penetration.

Someone is going to figure this out. When I first came online in the late 1990's I thought it would be nice to have a little block of "stamps" on the desktop that people could purchase in a block and then drag a number of stamps onto a site that one wished to support, or were prompted to in order to see the rest of an article. Obviously I hadn't thought it through, but my point is that if I've always wanted a way to support online content with micropayments that surely others have too. Payments aren't quite the same thing as a reputation currency, but when they are transparent counters, as Flattr and Jamendo's are they are quite related to one.

Whuffie doesn't need to be free as in "free beer," but perhaps sometimes it is just that. And Whuffie ought to be in my opinion free as in speech. I do think people want to give credit to the creators of stuff we appreciate. Some sort of ubiquitous online currency would create incentives. Some of the incentives might be perverse, but surely not all.

Everytime I read Shuttleworth being questioned about whether Ubuntu is profitable yet, I hear an impatient "No." As rich as Shuttleworth is I'm sure money matters. Yet I suspect that if Ubuntu got lots of reputation points from users that sort of recognition would matter a lot to him too. Ubuntu as a business isn't just about winning in a zero sum game, but about creating more winners. I admire the vision of Steve Jobs, but the game he excels at of winners and losers is not the game I believe will succeed in the long term. I want to root for the business players who are creating public goods not just more stuff. The game that's being played makes a difference to the design.

Update What do I know, but saw this piece about the announcement of the Mac Apple Store and how Microsoft has got to make an app store like yesterday. A micropayment feature like Jamendo would be radical. Okay, I know it won't happen, but I still think Microsoft is well-positioned to be a leader in micropayments if only they wanted to be.

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