2014: The Rise of Indie Tech

The post-Snowden world is not necessarily all doom-and-gloom. People around the world — including myself — are working to redecentralise the web and to create a new breed of independent technologies.

The Indie Web Camp UK crew
Indie Web Camp UK
7-8 Sept, 2013 — Hosted at Lighthouse during my residency. Photo courtesy @aaronpk.

2013 was a most exciting year for technology. We learned that the systems we have today, including the Web, are broken. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know without a doubt that we live in a global surveillance state. The scale of this surveillance is fuelled by the corporate surveillance carried out by companies like Google and Facebook. These are companies whose business models depend on their knowing anything and everything about us, because it is this information — this data — that they make their money from. This corporate surveillance is, in turn, exploited by the various intelligence agencies of the world, including the NSA and GCHQ in a global dragnet that has left our privacy in tatters and which threatens the very future of our fundamental human rights and civil liberties.

However, all is not lost.

If, like Quartz, you have not noticed any exciting new technology in 2013, it must be either because you were living under a rock or following the mainstream tech press, and thus, by proxy, living under a rock. You see, the mainstream tech press, blinded by their razor-sharp focus on discovering the next venture-capital-backed-free-service-to-perpetuate-the-corporate-surveillance-state, missed the kindling of the Indie Tech movement almost entirely. (A notable exception is Wired, who wrote a piece on the fledging Indie Web movement.)

Redecentralising the web

Digital Feudalism and How to Avoid It
18 Oct, 2013 — The Realtime Conference, Portland.

You might have missed, for example, that hundreds of the brightest minds in the tech industry gathered in Portland at The Realtime Conference in October to deliver a manifesto — nay a novel and a theatrical production, complete with marching band and actors — against closed silos. If so, you might have missed the declaration of independence of the web. (But don’t feel too badly about it, so did the entirety of the tech press — the event wasn’t covered by a single mainstream tech publication.) If you did miss it, the videos are available online, including my opening keynote, embedded above, which was met with a standing ovation; an important validation for what I believe is an important message.

If you thought that 2013 was deplete of exciting technological advances, you must also have missed the excellent work that the Indie Web community was doing. And, also, the introduction of a plethora of indie projects like Hoodie, Sovereign, Mailpile, ownCloud, and Cozy, alongside successful kick-starters like Lima (née Plug) and arkOS. All of which are efforts to redecentralise the web.

And, in case you’re wondering how these efforts differ from the work that the Free Software Foundation has been doing in the past thirty years and that the open source community have been doing for the past twenty, it is this: indie technologies are focussed — to varying degrees — on empowering consumers, not just enthusiasts. Indie tech focuses on building tools for the end user, not just underlying infrastructure. And, while open source is a necessary prerequisite for indie tech, it is not sufficient. The goal of indie tech is to empower consumers to own their own data. So, for example, although Firefox OS is an open source operating system, it does not have a framework for decentralised data ownership or an ecosystem of apps that take advantage of such a framework and thus it does not empower people to own their own data; it is, therefore, not an example of indie tech. (In fact, it can be said that Firefox OS, being an OS that runs web apps but without any web apps of its own, actually incentivises people to use the web apps of closed silos like Google and Facebook.)

Goodbye iOS, hello Indie.

Superheroes and Villains in Design
22 May, 2013 — Thinking Digital, Newcastle.

On a personal note, 2013 was the year that I stopped working on the iOS platform. I did this because I no longer wish to contribute to a closed silo. I started making iOS applications (and, later, also teaching Objective-C and Cocoa Touch workshops) because I loved the potential of this revolutionary platform for creating amazing user experiences. I care deeply about experiences. However, experiences that we do not own — no matter how delightful — are superficial. They are Disney-esque façades; short doses of dopamine that tickle our pleasure centres while dulling us to the long-term consequences of our addiction.

There is no doubting that iPhones, iPads, and Macs empower people. They empower me daily and I love my various iDevices. However, my data is still in a closed silo (iCloud) and I am contributing to a centralised, closed system. And, although Apple’s business model today is far more straightforward than Google or Facebook’s, it is still a publicly-traded multi-billion-dollar transnational company and its business model may evolve in the future.

In 2013, I came to the conclusion that in order for us to create experiences that are not superficial, experiences that deeply empower people, we must build beautiful, seamless experiences that you own, not rent. Beautiful, seamless experiences that just happen to be open, that just happen to empower you to own your own data.

And also in 2013, I decided to dedicate the next however many years it may take to this mission. And so, last month, I launched Indie Phone.

The message was clear: “we’re not going to take it anymore.”

Indie Phone

Indie Phone launch
28 Nov, 2013 — Handheld Conference, Cardiff.

(You can read the transcript of the talk in Indie Newsletter #1.)

Indie Phone is an attempt to create a design-led, experience-driven open product (as opposed to the traditional method of open product development, which is features-led and democratically-‘designed’). The goal is to realise the dream of indie data.

At the moment, I am bootstrapping Indie Phone myself. Since I am no longer teaching iOS workshops or working on iOS apps, I applied for a Shuttleworth Foundation fellowship to enable me to concentrate full-time on Indie. Unfortunately, although I got to the last stage, my application was not successful. The reason they gave me was ‘you need a longer time frame and much more support than we can provide’. I want to take this opportunity to thank the wonderful people who provided indications of support to the foundation on my behalf: my good friend and author of Tapworthy, Josh Clark, Lisa Robbins, CFO at ADP, and Thomas Marzano, head of brand for Philips. The amazing support that Indie has from such a wide range of people gives me endless confidence that we are on the right track and I am hugely grateful to all of you for your continued encouragement.

Regardless of whether I got the fellowship or not, my plan was always to bootstrap the initial design by selling a house we have in Turkey that has just been completed after years of construction and for which we are getting the deeds in January. My goal is still to go to crowdfunding at the middle of the year but this is contingent on how quickly we can sell the house and thus get the initial investment that will free me up to meet with potential core team members from around the world and to commission the people we need to work on the initial design and crowdfunding campaign.

I am also pleased to announce that I’ve hired a talented young product designer, Victor Johansson, to start working with me on previsualisations and primary prototypes in January. I will, of course, also continue to work on designing the core experience and getting the core team together.

If you’d like to be kept up to date with all that, please subscribe to the Indie Phone newsletter.

2014: The Year of Indie Tech

Indie logo

Although it is all too easy to get discouraged by the Snowden revelations, I urge you not to be. If you are reading this, chances are that you’re exactly the kind of person who can help fix things. People from all around the world are working to fix the web (and technology in general) so that it becomes a tool that empowers the individual. My own efforts are focussed on trying to bring the fruits of this work out of the realm of enthusiasts so that it can benefit everyday people.

The only way to combat the current state of corporate surveillance that we live in is to create alternatives to the products of Google, Facebook and their kin. Alternatives that are as seamless and beautiful to use. This is a battle that will be won or lost in the consumer space. To win, we must bring design thinking to open source and start creating beautiful, seamless, open experiences that empower people to own their own data.

That is what I’m going to be working on in 2014. And 2015. And 2016. And probably for many years more.

It all begins now… and I am hugely excited about the future.

Join me, and let’s make 2014 the first of many happy new years!