Tim O'Reilly defines "the Internet operating system"

From Tim O'Reilly, a major essay explaining what he means when he talks about the "Internet Operating System." It's all about abstraction -- about being the company that provides the infrastructure that everyone else uses when they want to write code or produce services that doe "internetty" things, like payments, location, time, social graph, access control and so on. Tim makes a provocative comparison to the early days of personal computers, before OS vendors produced the services that allowed app writers to hand off device drivers, file-systems, and other messy, low-level junk to Microsoft and its contemporaries. This gave an enormous amount of power to the OS companies.
This is the crux of my argument about the internet operating system. We are once again approaching the point at which the Faustian bargain will be made: simply use our facilities, and the complexity will go away. And much as happened during the 1980s, there is more than one company making that promise. We're entering a modern version of "the Great Game", the rivalry to control the narrow passes to the promised future of computing. (John Battelle calls them "points of control".)...

The breakthroughs that we need to look forward to may not come from explicitly social applications. In fact, I see "me too" social networking applications from those who have other sources of identity data as a sign that they don't really understand the platform opportunity. Building a social network to rival Facebook or Twitter is far less important to the future of the Internet platform than creating facilities that will allow third-party developers to leverage the social data that companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, AOL - and phone companies like ATT, Verizon and T-Mobile - have produced through years or even decades of managing user's social data for communications.

Read the whole thing. It's long, smart and important. I only took one exception to it: Tim talks about access control as "providing streaming but not downloads." I don't think that streaming (in this context) exists -- it's the phlogiston of the 21st century, just a disingenuous way of saying "downloading" used to convince luvvies and entertainment execs that it's possible to "show" someone a file over the internet without sending a copy of it to them.

The State of the Internet Operating System


  1. Cory, you’re right: Streaming doesn’t exist. In order to see the film/hear the music/whatever you need to download it, and whether you do it bit by bit and start seeing/hearing before the entire file is downloaded (as in streaming) or not is completely immaterial.

    Proof: in GNU/Linux, mplayer -dumpstream will get you the entire file by pretending to be a player, more or less. The Python program youtube-dl will do the same with YouTube videos. There is NO difference between streaming and download.

    1. Note that the examples you gave are from services that don’t even make the least attempt to prevent you from doing just that. This isn’t the case for commercial streaming services using DRM. Mplayer will get you nowhere with those. Yes, it is of course possible that any DRM can be cracked, but typically soon after it is known that a DRM is cracked it is replaced by a new method. So it’s a never ending process, much like the interaction of pathogens with the immune system.

  2. I think there is a market for (perhaps local) streaming services that let you upload your music files and then stream them to you on whatever device(s) you want. The appeal of being device neutral really appeals to me — I don’t want to sync my entire music library with my home computer, work computer, iPod Nano, and cell phone (nor could I in the case of the latter two). I want to listen to my music when I want to, wherever I am. The only impediment (for now) that I should have to put up with is wifi access (and actually having a device with me).

    We have Dropbox (which syncs files between your computers) and Slingbox (which lets you watch your cable and PVRd TV shows anywhere) — why not an Amazon S3-based service which lets you sync (and stream) your music and other media to your any of your devices?

  3. From a development point of view stream does exist. You have to write a media player differently when you are trying to work around varying bandwidth not to mention the fact that you can play a streamed format as it arrives. This also adds complexity to the server, which need to monitor the download conditions etc.

    1. (reply to Anon in #3)

      You’re right about streaming, but you haven’t actually disagreed with Cory. You stated that sometimes you can download but not stream – easy example, if you had to download a timed stream backwards, so that you couldn’t start watching/listening until the download ended.

      But Cory is putting it the other way around. He’s saying that if you have streaming already, you can have download just be remembering the stream.

      As for those playlists on Spotify – if the first time you listen, your player “remembers”, then they never go away either. And as for that music in iTunes – unless you can vouch for all of the code in iTunes, you can’t be certain music won’t go away. Kindle owners used to think their books couldn’t go away either.

  4. There is a key difference between streaming and download – the playlists I store on Spotify vanish if a record company changes their mind about offering them, while the music I have in iTunes does not. Of course I could Soundflower my Spotify stream and tag/organize/store the files, but this seems a technical point score – the user-experience of each is quite different.

  5. “There is NO difference between streaming and download.”

    Sorta. In a stream the data is downloaded in sequential order so that you can watch it. In a regular non-streaming download there is no need to download it in a specific sequence.

  6. Keshlam’s corollary to Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently accurate playback is indistinguishable from copying.”

  7. If there’s no such thing as streaming, why can I “Watch Now” all kinds of Netflix movies, but not save those movies to a file to watch later?

    I fully accept that it can be done in theory – in fact, it’s been done in the past, but now there’s a newer DRM system in place. And this is no obscure backwater media – we’re talking about one of the net’s most sought-after targets in terms of being able to turn streaming data into a downloaded file, and yet nobody has been able to make it happen…not even smart-ass hackers.

    So on a practical level, Netflix is streaming but not downloadable, has been for some time, and probably will be for even longer. And while computer scientists can tell me all about why that’s a theoretical contradiction, that has no bearing on functional reality.

    1. If there’s no such thing as streaming, why can I “Watch Now” all kinds of Netflix movies, but not save those movies to a file to watch later?

      Because you are insufficiently skilled, ZikZak. There’s no shame. I can’t bowl a perfect set or beat Tiger Woods at golf, but that doesn’t mean those things are impossible or even impractical.

      I personally can record any bitstream, including NetFlix. Your functional reality is not mine, just as mine is not that of a professional golfer.

      Shad Bowling, Logitech’s squeezebox technology (purchased from Open Source vendor Slim Devices) is probably what you want. I have over 6000 songs in my slimserver feeding my Squeezeboxes. All my media were legally purchased and legally ripped to FLAC files that live on my rusty old basement server. There are no monthly fees or recurring charges other than my ISP costs. I can reach those songs from anywhere on the Internet using SSH port forwarding from my Ubuntu laptop running squeezeplayer and stream them out the laptop’s speakers or headphone jack. Alternatively I can scp the files to my local desktop, convert them to MP3, and drag and drop them onto my $18 chinese MP3 player so I don’t have to tote the laptop around.

  8. No you don’t understand his definition of streaming. In his definition of streaming you don’t own the property. It is a temporary state and its provision depends entirely on a service provider or providers.

    A download you have permanently and can use at your will.

    There is a very big difference. The control a corporation has over people via streaming generates incredible power and profit.

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