Interview with Stanford professor Monica Lam about Omlet and the next revolution in social networking
Monica Lam is a professor for Computer Science at Stanford University and the faculty director of the Stanford MobiSocial Laboratory. Together with three Stanford PhD candidates in Computer Science, she founded Omlet Inc in 2009. Omlet is an open-source, decentralized social networking service based on a chat platform which can be extended by numerous micro apps. The company’s core principle is to not monetize on the data that is exchanged on the service. The service stores the data for about two weeks before it is deleted. If users want to keep data permanently, they can link the service to a cloud storage platform. Monica Lam recently attracted attention due to her aim to challenge one of the most powerful online services worldwide: Facebook.
On the 11th of August, Monica Lam visited CDTM to present Omlet to the CDTM community and members of Münchner Kreis and join an open discussion. Münchner Kreis is a non-commercial Munich-based platform that organizes a wide range of activities to discuss the chances and challenges of digitalization. Before her presentation, Monica Lam met Laura Bechthold and Judith Dada from CDTM for an interview.
Let’s start off right away with a short Omlet 101 : If you had to describe Omlet in three words, what would these be?
It is fun, it is for the future, and there is privacy.
Data and privacy are somehow still abstract topics. How would you explain the technical side of Omlet to people who don’t know how these things work?
The basis of Omlet is that you get to keep the data. We provide a function that is better than WhatsApp as a chat program and better than Facebook for sharing photos. If you want to broadcast your CV: Do it on Facebook! It is public information, you want to share it with everybody on earth and that is good! But if it comes to sharing data with groups or your friends – we are better. We are better than WhatsApp because enable a lot of micro apps that allow you to be more expressive. We are better than Facebook because we allow data to be exchanged based on location without being Facebook friends. The concept of uploading and downloading to the web is 2000. We are in the next decade, we have mobile internet and we developed a chat that will quickly have more features than anything else on earth because of Omlet’s open system.
A few months ago Facebook bought the messaging service WhatsApp and many Germans seemed to be outraged. Nevertheless, services that claim to protect their customers’ privacy, like Threema , failed to achieve a critical mass – what is your explanation for this?
Mobile is still at its infancy and can do a lot more than it is doing today. But if you take something that exists today and add privacy to it – you will fail. You have to recognize that services like Facebook have one big advantage: all our friends are already there. We realized that we cannot just take their model and add a little bit of privacy. In the end we would still create a product that is a lot worse since none of your friends is using it. That is why at Stanford we built a product that is ultra secure. It is our business policy not to sell people’s data, although we can see it. But privacy is just the foundation. I have spent six years of my life thinking about this: While privacy is important, people will abandon it when it comes to all the social stuff. Omlet gives the control of the data back to the rightful owners and thereby enables things that have been impossible before. But it’s not just taking what exists and adding a little privacy to it. If it was that easy, I would not have to work so hard.
How do you plan on communicating the value of Omlet to people who are using services like Facebook and WhatsApp?
Good question. There are two audiences: We are creating a two-sided platform for developers and users. Our platform enables developers to create their own social apps that have privacy built in. The users are brought in by the developers and the more users are on our service, the more developers will come: This creates our ecosystem. To enable this, we are partnering with device manufacturers. Our goal is to be on every Android device. We already have a partner who just got to the phone market: ASUS. We also have other partners that are selling tens of millions of phones – and we just flood the market with our platform. Of course we also do marketing – but how can you market against Facebook and WhatsApp? We will win because as a neutral third party we bring all the partners together. They don’t trust each other but they can trust us and they are all interested in interoperability to fight against over-the-top systems like Facebook.
Which role does education play in making people aware of the importance of privacy?
The educational part of Omlet works because we have a lot of reporters writing about us. But while privacy brings the reporters, it is the usability that brings the users. Our focus on user experience is huge: if you just have privacy – you lose.
What about Google – how do you feel about their recent actions and do you plan on tackling them with your service?
I have no problem with Google indexing the public web – it is public, there is no loss of privacy. What I worry about is the purchase of Nest and the Internet of Things. My students tell me that they don’t care about privacy on Facebook. I don’t know why, but they don’t. But the concept of having your security camera, your thermostat or your smoke alarm telling Google whether you are home or not – this is something that scares people. Our distributed architecture provides an alternative to a centralized model of data gathering, but the monetary power that Google has is just so big – how do you compete with that? The only solution is if you have many other billion dollar companies who would also like to counterbalance Google’s power. We are a technology company hoping to get a lot of these large companies to partner with us to deliver a better world for consumers.
What is a major digital trend you see at the moment?
A major trend is mobile technology and collaboration frameworks which will become important for the more serious side of life: health, finance, and education. Mobile devices are a huge equalizer for that and apply to all industries. If we rely on one proprietary company that reads all the data, the world is too inefficient. If we want to make this right, we need a revolution: we need a distributed system.
Last but not least, what is your career advice for current students?
If you can afford it, follow your heart: You do well in what you like!
Monica Lam is full of energy and enthusiasm. Meeting her was inspiring, fun and instructive. We would again like to thank her for her time to discuss this highly interesting new service. Are you curious to find out more about Omlet? Check out http://www.omlet.me/. It’s free, fun and 100% private.