On the Internet of Things, as on the traditional Internet, that’s not always the case. Though many companies implement privacy controls and adopt policies to protect user data, that data is still usually stored “in the cloud” — on remote servers under the company’s, not the user’s, direct control — and is put to uses that are not always clear to, much less approved by, the user.
Through Indie Box, Ernst envisions a future in which much of our data stays at home, on personal servers (“independent boxes”), and only enters the cloud when and how we allow it to. By running cloud-style software on an individual level, people could still enjoy email, file-sharing, blogging, and everything else the web has to offer without handing all their data over to Google, DropBox, and others.
Geeks, of course, have been running their own servers for years, and Ernst says the hardware available today makes it cheaper and more accessible than ever: A $35 Raspberry Pi will do the job. But so far, managing a server full of web apps remains a fairly technical experience that involves a lot of command-line input, maintenance and troubleshooting — which is more than the average consumer is willing to put up with.
The solution: better software.
UBOS is the open-source operating system that’s now emerging from the Indie Box project, with the goal of making it easy for the average consumer to set up a personal server for their data. Pronounced “You-boss,” it’s a customized and slimmed-down Arch Linux distribution that simplifies complex system administration tasks into a few simple commands, so that each of us really can become the boss of our own data and the software that uses it.
Want to host your own blog? UBOS can install and configure WordPress, along with databases and other back-end stuff, with a single command (all you need is a registered domain name). Want to share files without handing them over to a middleman? UBOS can set you up with OwnCloud, an open-source alternative to DropBox.
In fact, all the web apps UBOS is pre-loaded with are open source, as is UBOS itself. Ernst sees a direct link between open source software and hardware, and the ability to guarantee that users are in full control of their own data. Even though many users will lack the technical expertise to confirm how a technology works, they’ll be part of a community that includes “hardcore geeks” who will look under the hood, take it all apart, and report back on what they find. With open source designs, Ernst says, “you can see what it does, and you can change it if you want.” That’s not possible when your data lives in someone else’s cloud.
At this early stage, UBOS is still skewed toward the geekier end of the spectrum: Users must provide their own hardware, and they’ll still need to type a few command-line instructions to get things up and running. Over time, Ernst hopes to provide a more and more streamlined and user-friendly interface, and eventually to integrate UBOS directly with hardware products like the Raspberry Pi or even a preconfigured personal server. An early attempt at doing so, the Indie Box One, made a brief appearance on Indiegogo earlier this year before the project shifted to focus the OS instead of the hardware.
Hardware, Ernst explains, is too variable. One person will want to use an Indie Box as a media server for home video files, requiring terabytes of storage; the next only wants to share tax documents amongst family members, and needs just a few megabytes. A preconfigured server would never be one-size-fits-all, but the hardware is out there for people to assemble to their own needs. The UBOS software, however, is universal.
“UBOS opens opportunities for others,” Ernst says. Putting the OS out there as an open-source project is the first step in building an ecosystem that puts control of data back in the hands of users. Others will come up with hardware and software designs tailored to specific needs; UBOS is the soil lets that creativity flourish.
“I’d like to have a competitive marketplace, which is not possible if it’s tied to some company’s cloud strategy,” Ernst says.
While the ship may have sailed for certain types of data, particularly in the case of social media, Ernst is hopeful that other corners of the Internet will be easier to reclaim. The Internet of Things is a particularly good target. For one thing, many of the companies involved are small, vibrant innovators who can easily fill the new market niches Ernst envisions. And perhaps more importantly, the deeply personal nature of the data — which is tied so closely to users’ health, homes, and habits — makes the need for privacy and user control much more visceral than it is with the mainstream Internet.
“There is a possibility to make a difference at the edges,” Ernst says, “and that’s what we need to build on.”