Here’s a cool project: completely revolutionize shopping online


In 1995, shortly after she first encountered e-commerce, my wife assigned a cool project to the world by asking a simple question: Why can’t I take my shopping cart from site to site?

The operative word in that question is the first person possessive pronoun: my.

Look up personal online shopping cart and you’ll get nearly a billion results, but none are for a shopping cart of your own. They’re all for shopping carts in commercial websites. In other words, those carts are for sellers, not buyers. They may say “my shopping cart” (a search for that one yields 3.1 billion results), but what they mean is their shopping cart. They say “my” in the same coo-ing way an adult might talk to a baby. (Oh, is my diaper full?)

Shopping online has been stuck in this uncool place because it got modeled on client-server, which should have been called “slave-master” when it got named a few decades ago. Eight years ago here (in our September 2011 issue) I called client-server “calf-cow,” and illustrated it with this photo (which a reader correctly said was shot in France, because it was clear to him that these are French cows):

calf-cow

It began,

As entities on the Web, we have devolved. Client-server has become calf-cow. The client—that’s you—is the calf, and the Web site is the cow. What you get from the cow is milk and cookies. The milk is what you go to the site for. The cookies are what the site gives to you, mostly for its own business purposes, chief among which is tracking you like an animal. There are perhaps a billion or more server-cows now, each with its own “brand” (as marketers and cattle owners like to say).

This is not what the Net’s founders had in mind. Nor was it what Tim Berners-Lee meant for his World Wide Web of hypertext documents to become. But it’s what we’ve got, and it’s getting worse.

In February 2011, Eben Moglen gave a landmark speech to the Internet Society titled “Freedom in the Cloud”, in which he unpacked the problem. In the beginning, he said, the Internet was designed as “a network of peers without any intrinsic need for hierarchical or structural control, and assuming that every switch in the Net is an independent, free-standing entity whose volition is equivalent to the volition of the human beings who want to control it”. Alas, “it never worked out that way”. Specifically:

If you were an ordinary human, it was hard to perceive that the underlying architecture of the Net was meant to be peerage because the OS software with which you interacted very strongly instantiated the idea of the server and client architecture.

In fact, of course, if you think about it, it was even worse than that. The thing called “Windows” was a degenerate version of a thing called “X Windows”. It, too, thought about the world in a server-client architecture, but what we would now think of as backwards. The server was the thing at the human being’s end. That was the basic X Windows conception of the world. It served communications with human beings at the end points of the Net to processes located at arbitrary places near the center in the middle, or at the edge of the Net…

No need to put your X Windows hat back on. Think instead about how you would outfit your own shopping cart: one you might take from store to store.

For this it helps to think about how you already outfit your car, SUV or truck: a vehicle that is unambiguously yours, even if you only lease it. (By yours I mean you operate it, as an extension of you. When you drive it, you wear it like a carapace. In your mind, those are my wheels, my engine, my fenders.)

Since you’ll be driving this thing in the online world, there’s a lot more you can do with it than the one obvious thing, which is to keep a list of all the things you’ve put in shopping carts at multiple websites. Instead start with a wish list that might include everything you ought to be getting from e-commerce, but can’t because e-commerce remains stuck in the calf-cow model, so the whole thing is about cows getting scale across many calves. Your personal shopping cart should be a way for you to get scale across all of e-commerce. Depending on how much you want to kit up your cart, you should be able to—

  1. Keep up with prices for things you want that have changed, across multiple sites
  2. Intentcast to multiple stores your intention to buy something, and say under what conditions you’d be willing to buy it
  3. Subscribe and unsubscribe from mailings in one standard way that’s yours
  4. Keep up with “loyalty” programs at multiple sites, including coupons and discounts you might be interested in (while rejecting the vast majority of those that are uninteresting, now or forever)
  5. Keep records of what you’ve bought from particular retailers in the past, plus where and when you bought those things, including warranty information
  6. Let stores know what your privacy policies are, plus your terms and conditions for dealing with them, including rules for how your personal data might be used
  7. Have a simple and standard way to keep in touch with the makers and sellers of what you own—one that works for you and for those others, in both directions
  8. Have a way to change your contact information for any or all of them, in one move
  9. Mask or reveal what you wish to reveal about yourself and your identity, with anonymity as the default
  10. Pay in the fiat or crypto currency of your choice
  11. Use your own damn wallet, rather than using a Google, Apple or a Whatever wallet
  12. Everything else on the ProjectVRM punch list, where you’ll find links to work on many of the ideas above.

Yes, I know. All those things fly in the face of Business As Usual. They’ll be fought by incumbents, require standards or APIs that don’t yet exist, and so on. But so what. All those things also can be done technically. And, as Marc Andreessen told me (right here in Linux Journal, way back in 1998), “all the significant trends start with technologists.” So start one.

You also don’t need to start with a shopping cart. Anything on that list can stand alone or be clustered in some other… well, pick your metaphor: dashboard, cockpit, console, whatever. It might also help to know there is already development work in nearly all of those cases, and an abundance of other opportunities to revolutionize approaches to business online that have been stuck for a long time. To explain how long, here is the entire text of a one-slide presentation Phil Windley gave a few years ago:

HISTORY OF E-COMMERCE

1995: Invention of the Cookie

The End

Now is the time to break out of the cookie jar where business has been stuck for an inexcusably long time.

It’s time to start working for customers, and making them more than just “users” or “consumers.” Think Me2B and not just B2C. Make customertech and not just salestech, adtech and martech. Give every customer leverage:

By doing that, you will turn the whole marketplace into a Marvel-like universe where all of us are enhanced.

For inspiration, think about what Linux did against every other operating system. Think about what the Internet did to every LAN, WAN, phone company and cable company in the world. Think about what the Web did to every publishing system.

Linux, the Net and the Web each had something radical in common: they extended the power of individual human beings before they utterly reformed every activity and enterprise that came to depend on them.

If you’re interested in any of those projects above, talk to me. Or just start working on it, and tell me about it so I can help the world know.

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