A Social Network of One's Own

A telecom engineer aims to build social networks into set-top boxes with EnThinnai

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Steven Cherry:

Hi, this is Steven Cherry for

IEEE Spectrum

’s “Techwise Conversations.”

With all the excitement about it, it’s easy to forget that Google+ is just one of the many planets orbiting a universe dominated by the giant blue star known as Facebook.

In our June special issue on social networking, Spectrum profiled a social network start-up in San Francisco called Diaspora. And here on the podcast, we talked recently about another project called the Freedom Box, with James Vasile of the Software Freedom Law Center. The Freedom Box aims to get around the problem of corporately controlled networks by building a small hundred-dollar server that can be added to any home network. At the time, I asked Vasile, why a separate box? Why not just run some software?

My guest today thinks that’s a perfectly good idea. And, he thinks, it’s one that could help telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon get into the social networking game. Aswath Rao comes out of that world; his 30-year career includes stints at ZTE, Motorola, Lucent, and AT&T itself, where he spent more than a decade at Bell Labs, rising to the title of distinguished member of the technical staff.

For the past four years, however, he’s been working on his own project—a social networking tool called EnThinnai, which he refers to as the “un-social-network application.”

Aswath, welcome to the podcast.

Aswath Rao: Thank you for inviting me. It’s my pleasure.

Steven Cherry: I understand some of your inspiration came from taking to heart the words of Jeff Pulver, who was a pioneer of voice over IP. He says that we can each be our own telephone company. What does he mean by that, and how would that work for social networking?

Aswath Rao: I want to recall that he made this statement like 10 years back, and what he meant by that was that you can free yourself from the SDN [software defined network] operators and can offer features and services on your own instead of depending on the service provider. And for me that was the motivation and at that time I wanted to take this one step further on two dimensions. In one dimension I wanted voice over IP software to be running on an equipment on our individual homes rather than a service provider like Vonage or somebody other than the typical operating company. And the other dimension was why to stick only to voice, and at that time the social network idea was catching on, so I thought that I could extend that for social sharing as well. So that is why I say that Jeff’s claim was my inspiration.

Steven Cherry: So tell us about how your software works.

Aswath Rao: Okay. So for all practical purposes it is just like Freedom Box that your listeners heard last time around. It is running on an equipment that is operating at home and since it is a social sharing that equipment should be always on. So any equipment that is like a computer, and when I say a computer I don’t mean to be like a Windows or Mac kind of computer, any computer that is always on I want the software to run on it. So if you look around right now we have lots of such devices running at our home, if you take Wi-Fi router or media server or set-top boxes, those are all devices are potential candidates. So we designed the software so it can run on such kind of devices.

Steven Cherry: And the one pretty much everybody has is the set-top box.

Aswath Rao: Yes , set-top box or Wi-Fi router.

Steven Cherry: So what does it mean to run your own social network? What would the software do and why would that be better than the social networking structures that we have now?

Aswath Rao: A quick description of that application is: You run this application in your device; storage device is attached to this, and you store your information like photos or whatever in that device. And you identify who all can access this, and you need to inform your friends that you can access this. I will come to that how that is informed. So once they get to know that they have this photo that they can view, they click on a link, and that link points to that server that you have at your home, and then they can access it. And we have one of two ways of informing recipients of the availability of this information. If the other person also happens to run a server like this, then these two servers talk to each other; then that’s how they will be informed. If the other person is not having such a server, then I would have put this information in my server—the recipient’s e-mail address—and then they will get an e-mail notification with a link. Now, we do one more thing. Privacy is one of the important aspect of our application, just like Freedom Box; privacy and ownership of data. So we do not allow anybody who has a link to access that information—we will authenticate that person. So if I say that I want to share with Steven, and I give a link to Steven, and if somebody else gets access to that link, they still cannot access it; they have to authenticate themselves that the person is indeed Steven. And the interesting this is that authentication mechanism we use is a standard one called OpenID.

Steven Cherry: So it sounds like from the point of view of the user experience, it might not be very different at all from the experience of Facebook or LinkedIn. The real question is behind the scenes, sort of, where those photos and where those comments and profiles and everything are stored.

Aswath Rao: Correct. But in a way the user experience is different in the following sense. Today in Facebook I can share information only with my friends who happen to have Facebook accounts, so if a person does not have a Facebook account I cannot share that information with them. But that is not the case in EnThinnai. As long as the other person has OpenID and has access to Internet, then I can share that information with them.

Steven Cherry: I think a lot of people will be surprised to hear that your software is not open source—it seems like this sort of thing often is these days. Why isn’t it?

Aswath Rao: It is just the business model, because I invested my personal funds to develop it. It is like a software that the end user licenses, so there is no other business relationship subsequent to the license. So there is nothing other than I can derive revenue, other than this licensing.

Steven Cherry: Very good. You got started with this four years ago, which in social networking time is, I don’t know, forty years…

Aswath Rao: Yeah.

Steven Cherry: A lot’s changed, most notably Google+. Doesn’t Google+ solve some of the problems that motivated you back then?

Aswath Rao: Correct. One of the problems I identified with Facebook and Myspace at the time were universal sharing. So if I put a picture, all my friends get to see kind of thing, and Google+ with their concept of circles has same kind of idea that I can share only with one or two circles a particular item. And the other thing was about data portability. That was one of the big concerns in the industry, there is even an organization called DataPortability.org, and Google+ has addressed that by saying that at any time you can take the data with you and close your account. But as long as you are in that Google+, the data is with them, and then just like the concern Freedom Box organization has, because it is publicly stored the authorities can access that information if they want to, conditioned to legal constraints. So this one solves that kind of a problem. Another analogy I draw is it is not either or, I’m not saying with EnThinnai you do not need any of the other things. There are certain benefits of Facebook and Google+ kind of social networks, and people talk about strong connections and weak connections. So weak connections are like you do not have close interactions, it’s like you were high school buddies or something, and you have lost connection over a period of time, but it can be rekindled after a certain amount of interaction. So Facebook and Google+ are very good for such weak connections, and strong connections are with whom like your family members or close friends and that kind of thing. So EnThinnai is good for strong connections.

Steven Cherry: And I guess you had that in mind with the name itself.

Aswath Rao: Correct. The background for the name is my mother tongue is Tamil, and this is made up of two Tamil words. “Thinnai” is equal to porch or veranda or something like that, and “En” means mine, so just like Myspace, this is like My Porch. And in almost all cultures people sit in porch, and friends visit you, and you interact with them and so on. But there is another set of social interactions which is people go for like bars and meet and have social interaction there. So one does not preclude the other. There are certain instances where you interact in a bar, and certain instances where you interact at home. So that is the analogy I’m drawing.

Steven Cherry: So the “strong connections and weak connections” turns out to be your family’s front porch versus the bar downtown. Is that right?

Aswath Rao: Correct.

Steven Cherry: Aswath, it’s early days for social networking, so I think what we really need right now most is people willing to step back from what we have and ask, what great things could we have? And you’re one of the people doing that, so on behalf of all of the Facebookers and Twitterers and now Google+ers, thank you.

Aswath Rao: Thank you very much for giving me an opportunity to talk about it.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Aswath Rao, creator of the un-social network EnThinnai, about alternative routes to social networking beyond Facebook and Google+. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 7 July 2011.
Segment producer: Ariel Bleicher; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
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