With its alpha release, App.net promised a new kind of social network: a short-message service like Twitter, but subscription-supported and free from ads. Today, the company's adding 10GB of cloud storage and a file-access API, in an attempt to expand that service into a fully-realized social app platform.
You can think of it like iCloud or Dropbox with a social layer — a central place to store and share files across platforms and service silos — or you can think of it as free hosting for services that want to build photo-sharing, group-messaging, or Pinterest-like web applications using App.net's login. In fact, App.net founder Dalton Caldwell said in an interview, a developer could bundle all of these services together and build a near-clone of Facebook.
Imagine Dropbox with a social layer; imagine Facebook unbundled
But Caldwell doesn't want to build another Facebook. App.net, he says, "unbundles" social media, giving users the right to give different file permissions to different applications and using the client apps and platforms they choose rather than what's offered by one company.
All this springs from how App.net makes its money. By basing its business model on that of paid storage solutions like Dropbox rather than free social media companies like Facebook, App.net doesn't have to get into the privacy-encroaching advertising game. It doesn't have to lure in a billion users. And it can still support services that social network users love but are revenue losers for ad-supported social media.
"Twitter crippled DMs because there was no money in it for them."
Let's take private messaging. "The demand for group messaging is huge," Caldwell said, but "Twitter crippled DMs [direct messages] because there was no money in it for them." Even the demand for text message/SMS replacements is "bigger than Twitter in aggregate usage." There's also a solid market for paying customers who want all the social and communication features of Facebook but not the advertising or public exposure, some of which App.net has already captured with its Alpha.
"You don't have to control the pixels the users see. You're not selling the data that's going through the pipe; you're selling the pipe."
Still, adding the data backend allows for more than just short messages, a new Twitter clone, or a private Facebook. Photo-sharing apps like Flickr, note-taking applications like Evernote, or lightweight collaboration tools, whether for communication like Yammer or Hipchat or document editing like Google Drive, are all natural extensions of social media. App.net now has the storage backend and room in its ecosystem of client applications and services to support any of them.
If App.net or anyone else could pull this off, it would be welcome news to users tired of dealing with problems crossing between platforms. "Right now, if you like a social app, the side effect is that [its developers] get to control all your data," said Caldwell.
In Caldwell's opinion, this is the natural logic of the media business model. Little has changed from television and newspapers to user-created content like Instagram and Twitter. Since media revenue largely depends on advertising, media companies need to be able to keep others from snatching up their content or filtering out their ads.
Nothing new under the sun when it comes to ad-supported media or hardware lock-in
In truth, building shared storage into the hardware and operating system isn't much better. "There's a strategy tax for both Google Drive and iCloud," he said. "If you use Android and iOS, you're hosed."
"But if you have a paid service," like file hosting or wireless data, the people who run the service "don't care what frontend someone uses, and you're okay with not controlling content," says Caldwell. "You don't have to control the pixels the users see," he says. "You're not selling the data that's going through the pipe; you're selling the pipe."
In fact, the expectations for a storage service are entirely different from those for a social network. Customers rightly "freak out," as Caldwell says, if an ISP tries to privilege certain kinds of data or if a storage service like Dropbox changes the privacy or licensing provisions in its terms of service. When Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram try to exert similar kinds of control, customers who do freak out are routinely told that they're being irrational or that they had no right to expect any other kind of treatment from a free service that needs to be supported.
Social media as a paid data service, like hosting or broadband
This may be odd, but it's a combination of whether we see data as abstract or concrete, and the different ways we understand paid and free systems. Nobody's evil, and nobody's stupid, says Caldwell. (Well, maybe the anti-net-neutrality guys might be — ed.) It's all just a natural consequence of companies' business models and our evolving expectations toward payment and privacy on the web.
Still, many people do care deeply about privacy and ownership or licensing of data. In particular, we care about it deeply when it's about data files that we intentionally make themselves. We may have resigned ourselves to companies assembling huge dossiers about us, or using our public microblogs and search entries to serve us ads. But the idea that the photographs we take, the documents we write, and the home movies we share could be used in that way, with or without our awareness or consent, just because we store it in the cloud, is very different.
Even jaded web users care about privacy
So there is a market and a model here — buy the storage, buy the client app, and let the two work together to build the service — that's both well-established but running very counter to almost every trend in social media.
It's going to be a little rough at first, and you'll still have to pay
One disadvantage to not controlling the service end to end is that it will take some time for the new data-based services to come together. It's not optimized for bulk upload. There won't be a file-and-folder browser app right away. "If we build one, it'll probably be minimal, and we'll give it away" under a BSD license, Caldwell says, although there will be a web interface for light file uploads and to see how much storage you're using. App.net is counting on its third-party clients, some of which have already built in things like photos and messaging into their applications, to give users more front-end finish, optimized for whatever services they might specialize in.
Other features that users associate with cloud storage apps aren't on the table yet. App.net won't sync your files between machines, like Dropbox or Live Mesh, but the API allows developers to build an app that does. App.net won't have built-in file search; Caldwell says he and his team will have to think about whether they want to build that tool themselves.
(I asked Caldwell what would happen if Dropbox decided to expand its sharing tools from shared folders and links to a full-fledged social graph, he laughed. "Obviously, that would be competitive," he said, noting how much he loved being a paid subscriber to Dropbox. "Let's ignore my commercial interests in this," he added "As a user, hell yes! I want to see those options in the marketplace." Anything, he said, to overcome the entrenched, resigned cynicism over the current state of affairs.)
"We don't need to take over the world to exist and be useful."
Some people will balk at these limitations, as well as the current $36 per year or $5 per month charge for App.net membership, especially if they're happy with their social networks and storage solutions. But Caldwell doesn't think App.net necessarily has to match every feature of every service in order to work. Actually, that kind of feature creep is a sure recipe to fail, just as making the service free to everyone may have been.
"We don't need to take over the world to exist and be useful," says Caldwell, adding that "Think about how many people actually pay for Dropbox or Evernote, and then think about how cool and valuable companies like Dropbox and Evernote are."
The long run: free tiers and unexpected competition
Now, here's where the analogy between App.net and Dropbox or Evernote breaks down. It's true that Dropbox's and Evernote's revenue comes from paid, premium users, and that both companies blend cloud storage with frontend clients and rich partnerships built through APIs. But that only works because Dropbox and Evernote have free tiers, too. Dropbox users who pay can share files with users who don't; light Evernote users can try out the app until they decide they love the service so much they're willing to pay for the premium.
Freemium is back
Dalton Caldwell has been very careful to promote the paid service but to always say that App.net would consider offering a free tier, opening itself up to everyone, if the service could find a way to do it without advertising or data targeting. This seemed impossible if App.net was just another social media network. There was no model there. It seemed like pie in the sky.
Caldwell won't confirm this, but if you switch the frame from free media to paid storage, with social messaging as a layer on top of that, you now have a model for App.net to offer a free tier. It's Dropbox's model; it's Evernote's; it's Flickr's. It's freemium. Come for the free storage and services, pay more when you run out.
At this point in the web's history, that doesn't sound weird or utopian. It sounds like the oldest thing in the world. But can it work when there are already so many free one-stop shops for social media? Caldwell is betting that as long as people want to own their own data free and clear and keep it one place, it can.