Codename Prometheus

Codename Prometheus is a new initiative to create an open platform that competes on user experience in the consumer space. It is inspired in part by the Snowden leaks about the NSA and GCHQ spying programmes on ordinary citizens. Our aim is to create products that are great experiences out of the box. Oh, and by the way, they just happen to be open. They just happen to protect your privacy and respect your human rights. We will need all the support we can get. Follow us on Twitter, subscribe to our mailing list, and join us as we embark on the long road to realising this mammoth task.

Open source versus great experiences

Do you want a great user experience or an open source platform? How about a great user experience or privacy? And why should you have to choose one or the other? Are these things destined to be mutually exclusive? (No, they aren’t.) And why does it matter if they are? (It matters, because, in an increasingly technological world, the very character of our future lives, our civil liberties, and our privacy depends on having a widely‐adopted open ecosystem.)

While great user experiences and open source are not necessarily mutually exclusive concepts, you can be forgiven for thinking that they are based on the current crop of open source offerings in the consumer space (e.g., Linux distributions, Firefox OS, etc.) The character of these experiences is a direct result of the features‐led culture, organisational structures, and development processes of open source companies today. This is a culture that we are going to change. By example. With a new initiave called Codename Prometheus.

Why open source must succeed in the consumer space

It is no longer possible to predict the success of a product by examining its individual components — the hardware, the software, the cloud services — in isolation. We must examine holistic experiences instead.

Take Apple’s cloud solution, iCloud, for example. The introduction of iCloud was the most important development in the history of iOS since the original release of iPhone. It transformed iPhones and iPads from mere companion devices to standalone ones. And it permeates and shapes the very character of Apple’s continuous client experience. Will Apple ever integrate my open source cloud solution so intrinsically? No, never. Thus, can my open source cloud solution ever compete with the seamless holistic experience of iCloud? No, it cannot.

Furthermore, closed likes closed. Facebook and Twitter, for example, are integrated at the OS‐level on iOS and OS X. My experience of those social networks is inextricably tied to that level of integration. Sharing something on Twitter on iOS is a seamless experience in almost any app in a way that Tent or even will never be. Free and closed services that are not in direct competition with Apple thus benefit from a level of OS‐level integration that no open source alternative will ever enjoy on Apple’s platform. If we want to achieve the same level of seamless integration with open cloud solutions and open social networks, we have to build our own platform to integrate them at the OS‐level. That is the only way to compete with the seamless experiences crafted by Apple.

Let’s take Google as another example. Google uses subsidized hardware like phones, tablets, computers, and — soon — glasses to make your device login your Google login. In fact, they’re going even further with an initiative to bring balloon‐powered Internet for everyone. Because, what could be better for Google than making your Google login your Internet login? For a publicly‐traded multi‐billion‐dollar company that thirsts for your data, that is the ultimate dream: the unfettered ability to track you regardless of which device you are using or which sites you are visiting. Google doesn’t want to give Internet access to everyone, they want to give Internet access to everyone via a Google account. And they are building an empire that spans hardware, software, cloud services, and network access. One that seamlessly blends all of the above to create the Google experience.

These examples show how interrelated hardware, sofware, cloud services, and even network access are. Indeed, in the best experiences, they are entirely seamless. Any open alternative that competes on user experience must be similarly seamless if it is to succeed. Don’t confuse being hackable with having seams in the experience. A product can be hackable — can be open — without exposing its seams to the end‐user experience. We can implement beautiful intelligent defaults and layer the seams.

We need open alternatives that are beautiful holistic experiences. Beautiful experiences that happen to be open and private; where you happen to own your own data. Beautiful experiences that you can hack if you so want to.

Open source must succeed in the consumer space because I do not want to live in a world where the only choices my future children have are ‘which closed silos do I surrender my data, privacy, and rights to?’ And the only way I see of realising that dream is to implement what DuckDuckGo founder Gabriel Weinberg calls ‘frictionless privacy’ via a new open platform and products that are experience‐driven and design‐led.

Moving open source into the Age of Experiences

There was a time when features were a competitive advantage. Where every feature allowed you to do something that was previously impossible. It didn’t matter whether a feature was hard to use because the only alternative was that you didn’t get to do whatever that feature enabled you to do. However, for most things, that era is now behind us. The limiting factor in most consumer products today is not CPU power or RAM or the number of software features. It is the interface between the machine and the human using the machine. The bottlenecks of our age are empathy and imagination, not features.

Today, we live in the Age of Experiences. Features are commodities. And, like all commodities, they are not a competitive advantage. The competitive advantage of our age is the experience. It is a holistic thing. It is a scary thing because crafting a good one involves constantly thinking about these scary beings called humans who are emotional, irrational, and unpredictable. Much easier to think of database schemas and communications protocols instead; at least they are logical, rational, and predictable. And yet, understanding humans must be central to our process if we are to create expriences for them that are enlightening, empowering, amusing, and perhaps even delightful.

To put it bluntly, the current crop of features‐led open source products are stuck in the Age of Features and cannot compete successfully in the consumer space with the products of a design‐led, experience‐driven company like Apple. And yet, competing in the consumer space on user experience is exactly what open source needs to do if we are to have open alternatives to the closed silos of Google, Apple, and Facebook; closed silos that increasingly shape, regulate, and filter our experience of the world.

Open Source for Mere Mortals

I love open source. I learned how to program computers at the age of seven by reading the code of other people. I wouldn’t be where I am, doing what I do today, if it hadn’t been for people sharing their knowledge openly. I’ve also tried, whenever possible, to contribute to open source as one of the founders of the Open Source Flash community back in the day and as the author of several open source libraries and projects. And yet, I am also painfully aware of the limitations of the features‐led development culture that is prevalent in the world of open source.

Open source today is the domain of über geeks. Open source development centers around democratic decision making and ‘choice’ and ‘customisability’ are seen as admirable end goals instead of failures of design. Don’t get me wrong, this culture has given us many wonderful things, including the software that powers most of the Internet. I have the utmost respect for anyone who shares their time, knowledge, and effort on open source projects. And, similarly, I have nothing but respect and admiration for organisations like Mozilla and Canonical that work tirelessly and with great passion to create valuable open alternatives to closed products. In fact, I look forward to hopefully working with them, learning from their invaluable experience, and perhaps even building upon and contributing back to the valuable infrastructure that they create and share with the rest of humanity. Prometheus, it stands to reason, will stand on the shoulders of giants.

Today’s open source culture can, has, and does work supremely well when über geeks are solving their own problems. Look at the phenominal success enjoyed by the Linux kernel, open source databases, code libraries, and server‐side solutions. Where it falls flat, however, is when the problems being solved are those of mere mortals who may not want to fire up Terminal to install a certain Twitter app (the very thing I just had to do on Ubuntu, which is arguably one of the friendliest Linux distributions available).

Mere mortals need open source products as much as über geeks do, even if they don’t know it. And yet, what they are not going to do is to seek out open alternatives just because they are open. ‘Open’ is not a competitive advantage in the consumer space. They will, however, check out a new product if their friends are raving about what a great experience it is. And so what if it happens to protect their privacy, even if they feel it’s not important because they have ‘nothing to hide?’ And so what if it isn’t collecting data to profile them to sell to advertisers? And so what if they own their own data, even if they don’t know or care that they do? These are invisible advantages… at least at first.

The only way I see of creating a different world is if we suceed in moving open source beyond the realm of über geeks to create a third alternative to design‐led closed source and features‐led open source: design‐led open source. And the only way I see of doing that is to create a new platform with new products. Products that are experience‐driven and design‐led. Products that compete on user experience, not on ideology. Products that are a great experience out of the box and just happen to be open. That is the vision and Codename Prometheus is the new initiative I’m launching to make this vision a reality.

Towards an experience‐driven open ecosystem

The ultimate aim of Codename Prometheus is to create experience‐driven open products. What sort of products? Hardware + software + cloud. Continuous client experiences. Think notebook computer. Think tablet. Think phone. Which one first? I don’t know. Perhaps a new form factor altogether. That decision, along with many others, will arise from our initial research. It is way too soon, at this early a stage, to tie ourselves to such a decision. Because, before we can design the product, we must design the organisation.

First steps

The first stage of Codename Prometheus will involve refining and communicating the vision. I have already started speaking to key people across the design and open source communities and will continue to do so throughout. It is clear that there are those who are as frustrated as I am with the features‐led culture of open source and who are ready to jump on board with this initiative. Those who get it, get it immediately. And I’m hugely excited by who is already on board.

These are the earliest days. In the coming week, as well as the weeks that follow, I am going to be talking to a wide array of potential supporters and partners. If Prometheus is to succeed, we cannot invent everything and we have to be smart about using existing technology and remaining pragmatic. Our guiding principle is, and always will be, the end‐user experience of our products. And we will control that experience fully via trademarks.

Let me be very plainly clear from the outset so that we have no misunderstandings: this is not a democracy.

Design is not a democracy.

This is a new breed of open source company that we are founding. An open source company that is design‐led, where development is experience‐driven. An open source company that will, of course, listen to its community and to its users but where the community and its users do not make the decisions.

Internally, the standard response to every feature request will be ‘no’ and every ‘yes’ will have to earn its right to exist via a trial by fire. Intelligent — nay, beautiful — defaults, not ‘choice’ or ‘customisability’ will guide our designs.

We will protect the end‐user experience via trademarks. If our first product is called the Prometheus One, for example, you won’t be able to use the words Prometheus or Prometheus One to refer to your fork of our hardware or software. (Codename Prometheus is just that at the moment, a codename — since trademarks are so important to our model, the final name will be foolproof trademark‐wise.)

Sure, take the hardware and fork it, take the software and fork it, just don’t call it the Prometheus One. Because that name signifies a certain experience. The same beautiful experience that you expect out of the box, every time.

And again, once you’ve bought a Prometheus One, change it to your heart’s desire, if that is your heart’s desire. But it will be the experience we’ve crafted that greets you when you open the box for the first time.

If this excites you, if you want to make beautiful products that improve people’s lives, and if it is important for you that those products have their users’ best interests at heart, come follow our updates on Twitter and subscribe to our mailing list. Follow our progress, help us spread the word, let us know how you might be able to help. We will need all the support we can get as we embark on funding the initiative, designing the organisation, and starting preliminary research.

Now, more than ever, the universe needs a new dent. And we’re going to make it. I hope you will join us.

Update: Prometheus is now Indie. Learn all about the Indie Phone and sign up for the Indie Newsletter today.