What if your phone could only reach subscribers who were on the same network, perhaps just allowing calls from Vodafone to Vodafone or Telstra to Telstra.
This was the reality for the first landline telephone connections in the nineteenth century; they were private, self-contained and little more than intercoms.
The same was true of email in the twentieth century with many companies running internal systems long before they allowed the exchange of messages between businesses.
Even the humble text message, starting life as the Short Message Service (SMS), was for many years limited to use between phones sharing the same network.
Today, we still face such limitations when we try to transmit messages or share data between different digital platforms such as social media or messaging.
LinkedIn is invisible to Facebook and iMessage can’t talk to WhatsApp.
We just accept that the data within enterprise solutions from financials to customer sales are largely self-contained.
Communicating and sharing updates between platforms is still in the Dark Ages!
While the first private phone networks are ancient history, the email and text message examples are well within the working lives of many of us including myself.
When I first encountered email in the 1990s, it was in a large corporation and was a completely internal system limited to sending messages within the same division!
In parallel, the humble text message wasn’t even on my radar, and it was a complete surprise when my phone beeped with a message one day!
More than a decade ago, I predicted social media networks would eventually follow the same path towards interoperability.
After all, it is not the platform that makes them compelling, it is the ability to connect to others.
Markets get there in the end, however, the European Union isn’t waiting and is putting regulation in the driver’s seat.
The EU’s proposed Digital Markets Act will require “…that the largest messaging services (such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or iMessage) will have to open up and interoperate with smaller messaging platforms, if they so request.
“Users of small or big platforms would then be able to exchange messages, send files or make video calls across messaging apps, thus giving them more choice.
“As regards interoperability obligation for social networks, co-legislators agreed that such interoperability provisions will be assessed in the future.”
Even the initial moves threaten the value of social media. Exclusivity and barriers ensure that the content generated remains exclusive to the network.
Facebook and LinkedIn run the risk of losing some of their inherent value when user information is open across networks.
There is also the potential for smaller players to get a second bite at popularity when the size of the network is less of an impediment (similar to the role of niche phone companies today).
Reluctance by members to have their content completely tied-up on a platform is already something that Facebook, LinkedIn and others have tried to assuage by providing services to allow users to download all their content themselves through their user data download features.
Given that these features do nothing more than provide a local backup, they will not quell the demands to open the networks up.
Investors increasingly realise that the value of a business is in the information that it holds and the level of exclusivity of that content.
Think of the data that Amazon holds about the buying habits of their customers or the music preferences that Spotify tracks.
As telephone networks have become increasingly commoditised, much of their value and premium has diminished and so it could be with the social networks unless they can find a way to allow their networks to open up without losing the premium and exclusive information that they track about each of us.
The world of blockchain, cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens were relatively quick to find mechanisms for interoperability through exchanges and an increasing interest in distributed cross chain technologies.
Unlike social networks, interoperability does not diminish the value held on the original blockchain.
This is the foundation of the promise of Web3, a model for a distributed World Wide Web which combines the content (potentially presented in a metaverse) with value (in the form of either cryptocurrencies or non-fungible tokens).
The potential to combine value and content could speed up interoperability.
For decades, there have been open standards for content sharing which have struggled to be fully realised.
XBRL (eXtensible Business Reporting Language) is one such example for the sharing and reporting of financial and business information.
Although mandated in some jurisdictions, and valued by many investors when available, it has struggled to get universal adoption.
Putting a price on the value of sharing and connecting it directly to the content could provide the impetus that has been so sorely lacking.
Web3 promises to bring this shared value to reality delivering greater interoperability while providing mechanisms to share the benefits more fairly.
Whether this can really be achieved is yet to be seen.