In an essay that starts out about Gmail, Tim O’Reilly pulls together the disparate phrases that are groping at where computing is headed: small pieces loosely joined, the world of ends, IOS, the Internet as OS, software above the level of a single device, and even “one ring to rule them all.”
The Gmail question, to me, is being framed wrongly. “Gmail is a huge privacy threat” misses the point that Gmail is not so very different from any other digital service. To me, berating Google—and only, or even primarily, Google—for its terms of service, data mining, and potential for abuse makes it that much easier for MSN, Yahoo, and hundreds of other firms to hide in the bushes doing the same things. Those who strongly object to Gmail are apparently putting zero value on the fact that Google has been the least offensive, most responsible major online provider; O’Reilly says, and I agree, that there is some value in this. I don’t value it enough to ever sign up for Gmail myself, but someone who’s currently in the clutches of Hotmail should think objectively about whether Gmail’s TOS are really worse.
But the more important part of O’Reilly’s article is saying that the Internet will become the OS; that Internet companies will (even if you choose to believe they don’t already) hold terrifying powers; and most importantly, that where we thought this “network is the computer” thing would lead toward the world of ends, toward distribution, toward decentralization, the trend is actually toward centralization. There will be multiple companies competing in this new space, yes—and multiple trial-and-error over which apps or services will work best in the new paradigm—but, as Rich Skrenta showed, each company, app, and service can accumulate much more power over people as they accumulate the CPU cycles. O’Reilly’s words: “once storage and bandwidth become cheap enough, a more tightly coupled, centralized architecture is a real alternative, even on the internet.”