Review of Esther Dyson's Book Release 2.0

by Jakob Nielsen on November 15, 1997

We are in the middle of a struggle for the soul of the Web: should it be a traditional broadcast environment with one-way communication from a small number of branded media properties or should it let a hundred million flowers bloom into a richly diverse set of services that users can navigate freely? Most consultants, media pundits, and "push" vendors want to control users; Esther Dyson's new book is firmly on the users' side and explores a world in which the Web funnels power, freedom, choice, and responsibility for their own actions to the individual. For the Web to become a trillion-dollar medium, Dyson's vision will have to succeed: if advertising wins, the Web will stagnate at the hundred-billion-dollar level.

Release 2.0 is a useless book, yet of high strategic importance; I highly recommend reading this book. (I am not the only one to ultimately conclude in favor of Release 2.0: in late 1997 it was the number-two bestseller at; you can now buy the paperback edition, cleverly entitled Release 2.1 . There is also an audio-tape version).

The book is useless for anybody who wants to learn how to build yet another cool site or clutter up cyberspace with repurposed brochureware. It's even useless for more reasonable people who want to know why cool sites are bad and how they can build useful sites. Release 2.0 simply does not concern itself with short-term issues of importance for businesses that are going online now . It doesn't even have much advice for companies that are planning their Internet strategy for the next two-to-three years. Instead, the book takes the long-term ultra-strategic perspective and analyzes how the Internet will change the world over the next ten years or so. You don't need to know this to put up a Web page tomorrow. You do need to know if you want your company to survive. The world is going to be very different in the age of the network economy and Release 2.0 is one of the first books to peer into that future. In other words, no operational advice, very little tactics; all strategy, all the time.

Release 2.0 is divided into two main parts

  1. four profound chapters on fundamental changes to come in the network economy, covering the future of communities, work, education, and governance
  2. five somewhat superficial chapters on user-controlled networks, covering intellectual property, content, privacy, anonymity, and security

These two parts are surrounded by an opening chapter about Soviet/Russian software development and a closing chapter with a call to action to preserve user control of the Internet. At first, I found the Soviet chapter misplaced, but in retrospect it provides perspective to Dyson's campaign for a non-Soviet Internet (i.e., one under the control of individual users rather than central planning).

The Network Economy

In the first part of Release 2.0 , Dyson paints a picture of the network economy maybe ten years from now. These four chapters describe fundamentally different way of organizing our lives on many different levels and are definitely the most important part of the book. Even though Web pundits are a dime a dozen, very few dare look much beyond the next three to five years, so the perspective in Release 2.0 is not easily found elsewhere. When planning Internet business strategies, it is instructive to map out the evolution of the business to an end-state that fits with the scenarios described in these chapters of Release 2.0 . If the strategy will not work under these scenarios, it may well not be viable in the long term.

Dyson envisions a highly diverse and fluid economy where small companies or individual employees reconfigure themselves to quickly solve rapidly changing problems. Companies and individuals will have visible reputations on the Web that can be used to ensure trust and partnerships. Smaller companies will focus on specific competencies and increase their exposure to customers: by being small and having extensive external communications, the value of products and services increases relative to companies that make little use of networks and stay focused on internal politics. When the choice is between lobbying your colleagues or talking to your customers, there is little doubt that the customer-focused organization will win.

Dyson predicts that people who think quickly will prevail. The network economy moves at the speed of electrons and real-time performance will outrank establishment-building. There is less value in branding when potential consumers rely on live feeds of customer satisfaction data showing how other people like themselves feel about the alternative offerings. Imagine bringing a mobile Internet-connected device when you go to the supermarket: as you reach for a package of detergent, it warns you that 70% of 10,000 people like yourself who tried the product didn't like what it did to their laundry. Increased communication (and automated processing of judgment data) means increased transparency and more power to the customers.

Labels and Privacy

After the strategic perspective of the network economy scenarios, the second part of Release 2.0 is somewhat of a letdown. Dyson goes into great detail about various ways of encoding meta-data and various aspects of Internet security. These chapters do not quite reach the level of an implementation manual, but they are decidedly more tactical. Readers would have been better served with a single chapter on the strategic importance of meta-data and privacy instead of the detailed discussions of a variety of specific proposals.

The key observation in this part of the book is that users need meta-data in order to be fully empowered and in control of their own Internet use. For example, parents can guide their children to appropriate content and protect them from "adult" sites by relying on content labels . Sites may provide their own labels and it is also possible to subscribe to independently provided labels. Such rating services exist today, but Dyson generalizes the concept and explains how many other benefits will flow from knowing more about sites without having to visit them to find out manually. I definitely believe that the only way to solve the Web's increasingly severe navigation and search problems are through significantly increased use of meta-data, including labeled content and structure-definition files.

The second part of Release 2.0 makes a strong argument in favor of freeing encryption. The various chapters provide abundant evidence that the long-term future of the network economy depends on users' expectations of privacy and their ability to trust that sites are what they claim to be. It is clear that the only way we will realize the full potential of the Web is by having ubiquitous access to strong encryption. Every Web server and every Internet-connected device needs to have fully integrated encryption that is used to authenticate and protect every single information request, protocol transmission, and commerce transaction.

Just one example: to get valuable content on the Web, users will have to be able to pay for it (Dyson agrees with me that advertising is relatively useless on the Web and therefore cannot provide its main funding model). Micro-payments require security as well as privacy; thus encryption. Furthermore, people will only be willing to pay if they can have some assurance of quality before they buy. Since a site cannot verify its own value (everybody would claim to be the greatest ever), you need a neutral third party to warrant the quality of the information before you buy it. These ratings obviously need to be authenticated, or sites could hack the rating protocol and impersonate the neutral site, resulting in fraudulently high ratings and undeserved sales. Furthermore, the only credible way to rate a Web with hundreds of millions of sites is to combine satisfaction feedback from hundreds of millions of users. These users are not going to be willing to let a remote site know what they like and don't like unless their privacy is absolutely assured. Thus, every part of the future infrastructure for high-quality content depends on fully integrated and freely available encryption.

Release 2.0 has two conclusions:

  • the future will be very different from the present; the network economy will empower the individual and fundamentally change the way we do business in ten years
  • for the Internet to lead to the predicted happy results down the road, we will need to act on freeing cryptography now since it will take a long time for the necessary features to permeate the infrastructure
Reviews in the Legacy Media
Most reviews of Release 2.0 in the traditional media have been fairly negative. The main complaint seems to be that Dyson is unrealistically utopian and that the Internet will never do as much good for people as she envisions. The reviewers reject the premise that ubiquitous Internet connectivity will result in a friction-free network economy.

If you dismiss the possibility of fundamental change, then of course the individual predictions in Release 2.0 seem naive when compared to the current weakly-connected Web. I happen to believe in the connectivity-impact law of networking that says that the impact of a network goes up by the square of the number of devices that are interconnected. Since the Web will be at least 100 times larger in a few years, it follows that it will become 10,000 times as important. And a change of this magnitude is not simply more of the same: it probably will lead to a network economy.

Comparing Release 2.0 and Net.Gain

There are not many books about Web strategy. Release 2.0 answers a clear need by prodding readers to think about the fundamental changes that lie ahead as we move to a network economy over the next ten years. Unfortunately, this long-term view may be too strategic for many people who want help to plan their Web strategy for the next two years.

I know of one other good book on Web strategy: Net.Gain by John Hagel and Arthur Armstrong (two consultants with McKinsey). Net.Gain is a much more useful book than Release 2.0 in the sense that it prescribes a specific approach to evolving a Web design and building a business on the Internet right now. In order to stay buzzword-compliant, the authors employ the term " community" to describe their approach, but in reality Net.Gain is about how to use the Web for one-to-one customer service and relationship-building.

The main difference between the two book is that of advocacy. Release 2.0 is a firm advocate of user rights and describes a future where individuals are in control of their own destiny and big companies and big government play a reduced role. Net.Gain tries to harness the liberating potential of the Web into the service of corporations and explains how a company can build its own little closed world where it can rule its customers. In fairness to Hagel and Armstrong, they do emphasize that corporations need to base branded media properties on providing true value to users, that such value can be enhanced by good links to other sites, and that a diversity of specialized sites will be worth more than bland and unfocused mass-media sites. Most fundamentally, however, Net.Gain wants to tie users as much as possible to a few companies' sites and recommends that most links be to affiliated sites instead of open utilization of the richness of the Web.

Net.Gain describes specific steps that can be taken over the next few years to build more valuable websites, whereas Release 2.0 paints a picture of the network economy in ten years and leaves the consequences for Web design unexplored. Dyson aims at empowering individual users whereas Hagel and Armstrong herd users to sites controlled by their corporate clients. The two books thus seem very contradictory at a first analysis. My conclusion is, though, that Release 2.0 and Net.Gain complement each other well and agree on many fundamental questions about the nature of the Web.

Both books ultimately view the Web as a user-driven environment where business value is derived from sites that support things that individual users want to do, recognizing that different users will want different things. They also agree that the main benefit of the Web is that it allows targeted messages and individualized customer relationships, leading to a diverse environment with many specialized sites. Since this happens to be my own views as well, I recommend both books. You will learn different things from each book and you will definitely think about the issues differently when presented with the authors' different philosophies, but you can only benefit from stretching your thinking about Web strategy. The future really will be very different: adapt or die.

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