Reflections: The ecosystem is moving

moxie0 on 10 May 2016

At Open Whisper Systems, we’ve been developing open source “consumer-facing” software for the past four years. We want to share some of the things we’ve learned while doing it.

As a software developer, I envy writers, musicians, and filmmakers. Unlike software, when they create something, it is really done — forever. A recorded album can be just the same 20 years later, but software has to change.

Software exists as part of an ecosystem, and the ecosystem is moving. The platform changes out from under it, the networks evolve, security threats and countermeasures are in constant shift, and the collective UX language rarely sits still. As more money, time, and focus has gone into the ecosystem, the faster the whole thing has begun to travel.

All of this means that the set of expectations users have for social and communication features are evolving rapidly. Anyone building software today knows that it is not possible to stand still.

One of the controversial things we did with Signal early on was to build it as an unfederated service. Nothing about any of the protocols we’ve developed requires centralization; it’s entirely possible to build a federated Signal Protocol-based messenger, but I no longer believe that it is possible to build a competitive federated messenger at all.

Stuck in time

In some circles, this has not been a popular opinion. When someone recently asked me about federating an unrelated communication platform into the Signal network, I told them that I thought we’d be unlikely to ever federate with clients and servers we don’t control. Their retort was “that’s dumb, how far would the internet have gotten without interoperable protocols defined by 3rd parties?”

I thought about it. We got to the first production version of IP, and have been trying for the past 20 years to switch to a second production version of IP with limited success. We got to HTTP version 1.1 in 1997, and have been stuck there until now. Likewise, SMTP, IRC, DNS, XMPP, are all similarly frozen in time circa the late 1990s. To answer his question, that’s how far the internet got. It got to the late 90s.

That has taken us pretty far, but it’s undeniable that once you federate your protocol, it becomes very difficult to make changes. And right now, at the application level, things that stand still don’t fare very well in a world where the ecosystem is moving.

Indeed, cannibalizing a federated application-layer protocol into a centralized service is almost a sure recipe for a successful consumer product today. It’s what Slack did with IRC, what Facebook did with email, and what WhatsApp has done with XMPP. In each case, the federated service is stuck in time, while the centralized service is able to iterate into the modern world and beyond.

So while it’s nice that I’m able to host my own email, that’s also the reason why my email isn’t end-to-end encrypted, and probably never will be. By contrast, WhatsApp was able to introduce end-to-end encryption to over a billion users with a single software update. So long as federation means stasis while centralization means movement, federated protocols are going to have trouble existing in a software climate that demands movement as it does today.

Early on, I thought we’d federate Signal once its velocity had subsided. Now I realize that things will probably never slow down, and if anything the velocity of the entire landscape seems to be steadily increasing.

Extensible federation

XMPP is an example of a federated protocol that advertises itself as a “living standard.” Despite its capacity for protocol “extensions,” however, it’s undeniable that XMPP still largely resembles a synchronous protocol with limited support for rich media, which can’t realistically be deployed on mobile devices. If XMPP is so extensible, why haven’t those extensions quickly brought it up to speed with the modern world?

Like any federated protocol, extensions don’t mean much unless everyone applies them, and that’s an almost impossible task in a truly federated landscape. What we have instead is a complicated morass of XEPs that aren’t consistently applied anywhere. The implications of that are severe, because someone’s choice to use an XMPP client or server that doesn’t support video or some other arbitrary feature doesn’t only affect them, it affects everyone who tries to communicate with them. It creates a climate of uncertainty, never knowing whether things will work or not. In the consumer space, fractured client support is often worse than no client support at all, because consistency is incredibly important for creating a compelling user experience.

For example, even GitHub has problems with consistency and control right now. They introduced issue templates, but a number of third-party GitHub clients don’t support them, so even after creating a thorough issue template for the Signal Android repository, we still get people who post “it doesn’t work please help,” because their client never even showed them the template. That makes me annoyed with GitHub, even though I use the official GitHub clients. It’s a potential opportunity for a GitHub competitor that can display issue templates consistently.

Federation and metadata

One potential benefit of federation is the ability to choose what provider gets access to your metadata. However, as someone who self-hosts my email, that has never felt particularly relevant, given that every email I send or receive seems to have Gmail on the other end of it anyway. Federated services always seem to coalesce around a provider that the bulk of people use, with a long tail of small scattered self-hosting across the internet. That makes sense, because running a reliable service isn’t easy, but it’s an outcome that is sadly the worst of both worlds.

If anything, protecting metadata is going to require innovation in new protocols and software. Those changes are only likely to be possible in centralized environments with more control, rather than less. Just as making the changes to consistently deploy end-to-end encryption in federated protocols like email has proved difficult, we’re more likely to see the emergence of enhanced metadata protection in centralized environments with greater control.

Federation and control

On some level, federation is appealing precisely because it does freeze protocols in time. It’s great when centralized clients and servers roll out features that benefit us, but they could just as easily roll out features that don’t. Federation gives us more collective control over what changes we accept, but that comes with an unacceptable inability to adapt.

Given that federated services always seem to coalesce around a provider that the bulk of people use, federation becomes a sort of implicit threat. Nobody really wants to run their own servers, but they know that it might be possible if their current host does something egregious enough to make it worth the effort.

However, over the past six years, we’ve also seen the user cost of switching between centralized communication services reduced substantially, particularly given the tendency towards addressing with user-owned identifiers like phone numbers. The device’s address book is now the social network, so using phone numbers as an identifier has reduced switching costs by putting a user’s social network under their control. In a way, the notification center on a mobile device has become the federation point for all communication apps, similar to how older desktop IM clients unified communication across multiple IM networks.

The effect has been visible in the messaging space, where market leaders have come and gone, new popular apps come out of nowhere, and even the most successful players seem compelled to continue iterating and improving their services as quickly as possible.

This reduced user friction has begun to extend the implicit threat that used to come with federated services into centralized services as well. Where as before you could switch hosts, or even decide to run your own server, now users are simply switching entire networks. In many cases that cost is now much lower than the federated switching cost of changing your email address to use a different email provider.

An open source infrastructure for a centralized network now provides almost the same level of control as federated protocols, without giving up the ability to adapt. If a centralized provider with an open source infrastructure ever makes horrible changes, those that disagree have the software they need to run their own alternative instead. It may not be as beautiful as federation, but at this point it seems that it will have to do.