Why people are giving Ind.ie money to think past the web

Last time I checked in with user experience designer and privacy advocate Aral Balkan, he and his Brighton, U.K.-based Ind.ie team were preparing to unveil details of a handset called the Indie Phone, which they hope will provide a less centralized, more privacy-respecting alternative to phones from Apple and Google.

The concept for that device has now been unveiled (see picture above) and it’s still on the team’s “Project Stratosphere” roadmap for a 2016 debut, but first they want to build the underlying open-source technology. To that end, Ind.ie. is running a crowdfunding campaign to fund the development of the three key elements:

  • A peer-to-peer distributed file synchronization system called Pulse, which as a starting point lets people synchronize stuff between their devices without having to share it with a third party, as happens with something like [company]Dropbox[/company]. Pulse is a fork of another project called Syncthing, and it’s out already.
  • A social network client called Heartbeat that will run on top of Pulse. This native app will enter a private pre-alpha testing phase on December 10, exclusively for those running OS X Yosemite, but the aim is to create Android and iOS ports from early 2015.
  • An “introducer” tool called Waystone that will act as a bridge between the “Indienet” and the web, allowing people to forge relationships that can then be continued on Heartbeat.

“Our goal is to create a consumer platform and if we are one day going to compete with the likes of [company]Google[/company] and [company]Apple[/company], then we need to have control over the components of the user experience that they have control over,” Balkan told me this week. “It’s audacious, but only as audacious as it needs to be. If you’re just building a piece of hardware or a platform, you’re building a component and trying to compete with someone who’s building an end-user experience.”

Thinking post-web

Audacious it is: it’s no less than a plan to move beyond the web that we know and love.

As Balkan tells it, “we can’t fix the web” because its services have coalesced around the aforementioned power players. “The web is what it is,” he said. “What we’re building is a post-cloud, post-web platform. Of course we use the web for what its good at, which is findability. Going to [company]Facebook[/company] to find friends isn’t the problem. The problem is you have to stay with Facebook to talk to them.”

The Ind.ie team is adamant that it doesn’t want venture capital funding – hence the $100,000 crowdfunding campaign, for which donors will get little more than a warm fuzzy feeling (and a chance to play with the Heartbeat pre-alpha, if they stump up $100.) Indeed, Ind.ie is in the process of transitioning to a private company limited by guarantee, a type of British non-profit.

[pullquote person=”Aral Balkan” attribution=”Aral Balkan, Ind.ie”]Facebook and Google are designing for two disparate audiences: their users and their customers. These people have orthogonal needs.[/pullquote]

With 19 days still to go, it is doing quite well – on Friday it crossed the $65,000 mark, which means the German firm Open-Xchange (which makes relatively privacy-friendly Google Apps-rivaling web apps for carriers and hosting providers) will now have to make good on its promise to throw an extra $10,000 into the pot.

“It’s amazing to see how much support we have for this,” Balkan told me. “We’re going for $100,000 initially and at this rate we’ll exceed that, and will be announcing a few things going forward.” One thing will be to add encryption-at-rest to Pulse, to allow for untrusted backup hosts – a potential revenue stream for making this sustainable.

Tempting users

I’m very excited to see what the Indienet experience — apparently to be best experienced on that unusual-looking Indie Phone — will end up being like, but I am also curious to see what sort of new tools and tasks it will enable that aren’t already available on less privacy-respecting platforms.

Balkan is a sometimes pugnacious presence on social media, where he continually rails against the anti-privacy core business models of Google, Facebook and others. He has good reason to do so – it is entirely sensible to view these companies’ post-Snowden privacy moves with intense suspicion – but at the same time it’s difficult to see, in truly tangible terms, what he’s proposing as the alternative.

Will people really opt for a fresh-start platform just because it is more respectful of their rights? “They will hopefully use it because the user experience won’t just be as good as what exists, but better,” Balkan argued. “Facebook and Google are designing for two disparate audiences: their users and their customers. These people have orthogonal needs.” But what services will they get? “Photos, thoughts, being able to share things you found – these are the core elements of what we’re going to create.”

These are the sorts of services people can already use, even if they do so with wearied concern over the privacy implications of the platforms that enable them today. I can’t help but feel that what’s needed to move people beyond the current “digital feudalism” is a new breed of services that the likes of Google and Facebook simply cannot support in their models.

Of course, that next generation will require a foundation, and perhaps the Indienet is it. Perhaps it’s Maidsafe, another British project that aims to supersede the internet itself. Perhaps it’s something like Sandstorm, a slightly less ambitious but nonetheless intriguing “personal cloud platform” that aims to create a home for indie web apps. Or maybe it’s something that will be derived from one or none of these schemes (all of which, incidentally, suffer for now from the why-would-ordinary-people-switch conundrum.)

These projects are all taking very different approaches to a common problem, but someone will crack it one day and the race is a fascinating one to watch. One sure thing, though, is that whoever makes it will do so largely on the basis of user experience — and for its focus on that, and its reasonably detailed roadmap, Ind.ie remains one to watch closely.