What would it take for Tim Berners-Lee’s new Web replacement to succeed?

Tim Berners-Lee, the man who created the Web, is frustrated with how giants like Facebook and incompatible apps rule our online experience. His solution is Solid, and open-source project that will allow you to control your own data. Solid is a long shot — unless Apple gets behind it.

Berners-Lee described his vision in a blog post. Here an excerpt:

[T]he web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas.
Today, I believe we’ve reached a critical tipping point, and that powerful change for the better is possible — and necessary.
This is why I have, over recent years, been working with a few people at MIT and elsewhere to develop Solid, an open-source project to restore the power and agency of individuals on the web.
Solid changes the current model where users have to hand over personal data to digital giants in exchange for perceived value. As we’ve all discovered, this hasn’t been in our best interests. Solid is how we evolve the web in order to restore balance — by giving every one of us complete control over data, personal or not, in a revolutionary way.
Solid is a platform, built using the existing web. It gives every user a choice about where data is stored, which specific people and groups can access select elements, and which apps you use. It allows you, your family and colleagues, to link and share data with anyone. It allows people to look at the same data with different apps at the same time.
Solid unleashes incredible opportunities for creativity, problem-solving and commerce. It will empower individuals, developers and businesses with entirely new ways to conceive, build and find innovative, trusted and beneficial applications and services. I see multiple market possibilities, including Solid apps and Solid data storage.

Berners-Lee has started a company, Inrupt, to drive the opportunities in this ecosystem.

How Internet economics works

When Berners-Lee created the Web in 1989, the equation was very simple from the consumer’s perspective:

I give you an address, you give me the content at that address.

Money didn’t enter into it much. But around 1995, it started to become clear that money was going to be a very big part of what made the Internet work. That year, I wrote my first report for Forrester, called “Turning Content Into Cash.” It made what was at the time the surprising call that advertising would be the business model for online content. The total internet advertising market that year was about $19 million. Now, 23 years later, digital marketing is close to $100 billion in the U.S. alone. Facebook gets around 20% of that.

Obviously, there is commerce, too. All of this money depends on targeting you. It also depends on traffic. And increasingly, traffic is based on seeing what you want to see, which suppliers (especially social networks) determine by watching your interactions with other people and using algorithms to show you what people like you are seeing.

So the new equation now has these parts:

I give you data, you show me ads along with content.

I give you data, you show me what people like me like most.

(Yes, I am aware there are paid sites like The New York Times. But payments for content are an order of magnitude lower than payments for advertising.)

The free Web depends on these equations. Without advertising, you’d have to pay for Facebook and apps. You’re still paying, but you’re paying with data and attention more than money.

The data equations have led to the conditions that Berners-Lee (and all of us) hate most. The annoying, intrusive ads. The clickbait content and fake news buoyed by the masses, cluttering up our feeds. The data silos at Facebook, Google, and Amazon. The dozens of incompatible apps we all use. The Web was unified, but now we have the Splinternet, with paywalls, silos, and apps dividing our experience.

Will Solid actually change anything?

The current Web infrastructure supports the current Web economics. I’m sure if Berners-Lee had it do over again, he would have included revocable control of data as one of the elements of the original Web. I can’t fault him for not foreseeing that his little science project would turn into the dominant way people communicate and companies do business. In any case, now he’s trying for a do-over to fix how the Web evolved.

There are two questions to answer here: First, is what Berners-Lee is proposing necessary to a better future for the Web? And second, is it sufficient to create a change?

I give Solid credit for having identified the necessary step to remaking the Splinternet into a better place for us all to interact. To do that, we need to change the fundamental equations of Web economics. The new equations that Berners-Lee implicitly contemplates are as follows:

I choose to give you data, or not — and you show me ads, or charge me money.

I choose to give you data, or not — and you show me what I want to see, not what your algorithm guesses people like me want.

I choose to revoke or share the data I gave you.

If this infrastructure were in place as the Web grew, then applications like Facebook and mobile apps would be very different. They’d also be far more diverse, implementing a wider variety of business models, rather than overwhelming domination by a monoculture of intrusive ads.

But that’s an alternate world. In the real world, change doesn’t happen just because something is “better.” Facebook isn’t going away. The fundamental challenge is this: we are happy to give up an infinite amount of data in exchange for tiny amount of convenience or entertainment.

Don’t believe me?

What about all those cookie notices you’re seeing on Web sites now. What percent of people just click “yes” and move on? I’m sure it’s nearly everybody.

What about the huge data breach at Facebook? Do you see people leaving? Nah, they don’t care.

Until Facebook starts taking naked pictures of everyone in the shower and posting them without permission, people will put up with the annoyance to get their fix.

That means the only way the Solid model can have a chance is to create something so good that people find it more diverting than Facebook and rest of the apps.

Since Solid is a platform, Inrupt need not be the only company that can build such applications. Anybody could build on this platform and create a new monster application, or set of applications, that win people over. Facebook would fade, not because people hate it, but because there was something better.

Historically, this is the only way that technology shifts.

Apple is the key to Solid’s success

What is the monster application or set of applications that will displace Facebook and remake the online business model?

I have no idea. (If I did, I would be starting a company to build it, not nattering about it on this blog.)

But change is possible.

Microsoft dominated computers until the Internet came along. AOL dominated online until the Web. Netscape dominated browsers until I.E., which was then displaced by Chrome. Yahoo dominated search until Google. Apple dominated mobile until Android. Technology dominance is not irreversible — there’s always a new, better idea that can disrupt the old way that “everybody” does things.

Whatever this new experience is — voice, augmented reality, direct brain interfaces, I have no idea — it will be a new way of connecting people, sharing content, and making money. If Solid is sufficiently well engineered, it could include a new, possibly fun, way of sharing data in exchange for value, and maybe even playing games with that data.

But who will build it?

It might be a venture-backed company with a completely new idea. It’s happened many times before.

But there is one large tech company that currently succeeds by treating people’s data with respect: Apple. Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Twitter all succeed by turning your data into ads. Apple doesn’t.

Apple has the power to create new devices, new experiences, new apps, and new ways to entertain yourself and experience life without requiring you to give up all your data.

Apple is the most profitable company in the world. It has the money to do this.

Apple’s is running out of growth opportunities. It needs to make a new, big bet to find something else to sell people.

Apple’s most fierce rivals in terms of online power are Facebook, Google, and Amazon. To regain power, it needs something they don’t have — a new ecosystem.

I’m not smart enough to figure out what the next big thing is. But it might be built on Solid. And if so, Apple is probably the company that will build it.