Gradual Epiphany

The Main Thing

Of late, there has been lots of discussion in the Jabber community about adoption, Aunt Tilly and the future of Jabber. Specifically: here, here, here, here and here.

The summary of all those entries is pretty simple. Some people think that the Jabber “community” (in reference to people who develop/use Open Source software) is doing a poor job of growing and satisfying the needs of people like Aunt Tillie. They suggest that until we get Jabber (as an IM system) to the point where Aunt Tillie will prefer it over MSN, AIM or ICQ, we’ve not satisfied the core use case of Jabber — instant messaging.

At the heart of this debate (if you can call it that) is the question of direction for the community. Is it the goal, or even responsibility of the community to “solve” the instant messaging problem? Is there even a instant messaging problem to solve? Does Aunt Tillie really need something other than the IM networks which are publicly available? Certainly, you can make a case that corporations (and perhaps academia) need something more — they need security, auditing, etc. But when we start talking about end consumers, do they need more? It seems that we spend a lot of time and brain power trying to emulate the public networks when it comes to GUI, features, etc. To what end?

It seems a constant failing of the software industry to create solutions for problems that don’t exist. Is the Jabber community guilty of that failing? Is Jabber really a good answer for your average consumer? Does it provide them something unique, something of value? I’ve heard arguments saying we need to first match the features of the public networks, then innovate. As any product manager will tell you, it’s a losing proposition to play catch up in the features game. Yet, here we (the Jabber community) are trying to match the public networks! I’m not saying that developing clients and matching features is a bad thing. Trying to convince Aunt Tillie to use Jabber isn’t a bad thing either — there’s probably some good reasons (related to privacy) to encourage it. However, I don’t think it’s the main thing we should be trying to do.

So if we’re not trying to solve the IM (consumer) problem, what are we trying to do? What is the main thing?

The Jabber community must first and foremost continue to advance Jabber. Yes, this means JEPs. This means discussion and development. It means answering questions for newbies. It means innovating on seemingly pointless little projects just to say that we did it. In other words, the community’s value is not in the software it produces, but in the way it encourages more people to look at Jabber as a useful tool. Software is certainly a part of it, but it’s not the Main Thing. It’s more of a side effect.

A few other random thoughts…

Somehow the community, or some members thereof, have reached the conclusion that Jabber must grow as Linux (or other Open Source technologies). What hubris to assume that software can only grow one way…that there is one way. There are many roads to (so-called) world dominance — what was right for Linux may not be appropriate for Jabber. Perhaps more telling is that what was right for HTTP (i.e. something more akin to Jabber) is not necessarily appropriate for Jabber!

We need to decide if Jabber is just about IM or if it really is about infrastructure when evaluating the progress. If it’s infrastructure, advancing in corporate and academic settings is probably the best path towards adoption. Also, Jabber is bigger than the community — it’s arrogant, if not rude to downplay the value of the work done by companies and academia, even if it doesn’t directly impact the “community” (that is for the most part, people who want stuff for free). It deeply irks me when people downplay the positive contributions that companies like Winfessor, Jive, Antepo, JabberInc, etc. have had on our little bit of Internet ecosystem. Contributions to the community are not necessarily always in the form of money or software. Sometime the best contributions are getting people who had not previously viewed Jabber as a serious technology to take a second look — sometimes that can only happen in corporate settings.

The Old Internet is not the New Internet. The reality is that corporations are more involved in adopting and driving new technologies than “before” (or when technologies that we now view as infrastructure were developed). Let’s also not forget that Auntie Tilly is probably still working (what with Social Security these days) and people can be heavily influenced by the technology available to them in the workplace. Bottom line, adoption by corporations and academia is as important as “the community” — if not more so.