Opinion/Analysis: Proprietary 2.0 and Why It Will Fail

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Web 2.0 is about openness. It’s about the freedom to share and the freedom to experiment. Creative Commons, a pioneer in the movement for “free culture,” has made it easier to create mashups and use the art of others. All of this is done legally and with attribution to the creator (depending on the CC license). The world we live in and the companies we support are rapidly opening up and becoming more transparent. So why stop now?

The Music Debacle: A Brief Background

Companies have learned their lessons. Proprietary formats usually don’t work, unless you’re the first to market a product. The easiest case to use in this instance is that of the music industry. CDs were a naturally agreed upon format that played in (most) everyone’s CD players. The digital age brought a swarm of new file types, including AACs, ATRAC3s, MP3s, and those as obscure as Ogg Vorbis. Initially, many of the big record companies and electronics producers supported their own proprietary filetypes. Sony supported the ill-fated ATRAC3 compression with their Connect online store. Microsoft supported locked and protected WMAs. Apple, the industry leader, supported AAC files with Digital Rights Management. So far, the only successful proprietary format has been Apple’s, and that’s only because the iPod has a commanding lead in the marketplace.

Sony has taken a hard fall from their mistakes in the music market. The PSP has given them the same sort of trouble after they continued to support the antiquated Memory Stick Duo format. Other music companies have learned from Sony’s blunder. EMI has just begun selling DRM-free MP3 files. This is a complete win-win for consumers and the record labels. Finally, it seems as if the big electronics vendors are supporting the ideals of the new Internet, allowing files that can function on any device out to reach the mainstream.

A Web 2.0 Success: YouTube

As with most questions, there are two sides to this. The companies that succeed in this new infrastructure will be those that embrace the aforementioned ideals of openness and transparency. So far, we’ve already seen some sites utilize those principals and achieve success. YouTube is a terrific example. Videos aren’t kept just on YouTube. Instead, viewers can embed the player on any number of websites, a feature which initially helped to contribute to its viral spread. Additionally, the video is downloadable through several backdoors in any number of different formats.

Google bought YouTube in 2006 to acquire their massive userbase. Their own product, Google Video, initially had trouble attracting the same number of visitors as YouTube. Google, however, failed to see why. Unlike YouTube, they made it rather difficult for users to view videos on anything but Google Video itself. The embeddable player, a hallmark feature of YouTube, was poor. Furthermore, to download videos from Google Video, one had to download the Google Video Player or the DRMed video files wouldn’t function. So, as Google often does, instead of fixing the problems in-house, they acquired another company to fix their problems for them.

….And Then There Are the Others

The stark contrast between the success of YouTube and the mediocrity of Google Video is a perfect example of the differences that openness can provide. Some companies, however, fail to see that sharing is the future of the web. This week I had the opportunity to experiment with Yugma, an online conferencing application. I had searched the web in vain for a product that allowed me to do a collaborative screencast with voice. When I stumbled upon Yugma, I had thought it was a godsend.

The product promised an embeddable player, along with a recording of the screen sharing. I would be able to capture the product demo, along with the audio, and embed it all on the site as a screencast. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way. It turns out that many of the features Yugma promises don’t quite work yet. To begin with, you can’t record the audioconferencing they use and sync it to the video. It’s not something that’s built into Yugma, and it didn’t seem like they planned on including it in future versions.

Most important to me, however, was Yugma’s ability to record. So, I bit the bullet and purchased a Yugma Premium account for $10 per month. I tested out the service with a friend and found it exceedingly difficult to record my screencast. Furthermore, after I recorded it, the file was saved in one of Yugma’s proprietary formats. Yugma, despite the site’s promises, does not allow a user to embed the file on the internet. The recorded screencast, as it is in a proprietary format (.fbs), isn’t even recognized by video applications. Therefore, the files aren’t easily edited since Yugma doesn’t provide an editor. Also, they cannot be uploaded to the internet as the video players of web users don’t know how to handle the .fbs files that Yugma provides. The only way to compensate would be by utilizing the analog loop and using another screencast recording software to capture the Yugma recording. Why waste the time?

The Future

It’s almost an adapt-or-die scenario. While Yugma may be helpful for meetings and normal screensharing, if it’s going to advertise some recording features, the company has lots of improvements to make. Their proprietary format clutches on to archaic and old logic. No more is it acceptable to chain users to a specific platform or piece of software. Now, users want to embed their media everywhere, and Yugma is impeding this natural process. What they do with this feature from here on out may very well determine the future success of the company.

The web is cluttered with APIs. This, however, is how it should be. It enables users to benefit from the products of other companies, and it enables developers to piggyback on existing software innovations. The easiest example is the one we’ve been using recently, the Facebook Platform. The opening of the Platform has led to countless new business opportunities not just for Facebook, but for the developers they’re now supporting. Companies like Yugma, however, must realize that open is the way of the future. If not, they run the risk of being tagged Web 1.0, against the tides of the new and open internet.

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