Embrace, extend, and then what?

The Fediverse has been around for a while. Exactly how long depends on what one counts as the Fediverse, but ActivityPub—the protocol now used by perhaps the best-known Fediverse software, Mastodon—is over five years old.

The Fediverse has historically mainly involved non-commercial entities. Indeed, for many of its users, its non-commercial nature is a major part of the appeal. Recently, though, corporations including the likes of Facebook have started expressing more interest in ActivityPub. Twitter's recently accelerated deterioration under Elon Musk is likely to blame for this, as the Fediverse (or rather, Mastodon) has been more widely covered as an alternative to the ailing social network. If Twitter does collapse—or turn entirely into just another Internet pit of fascism—then a vacuum will emerge. Moving into that vacuum is of interest to the other big corporate players, and the possibility that ActivityPub will be relevant for doing so explains the attention that it is now getting.

Parts of the Fediverse have expressed concern about the possible entry of corporate interests into the space. These parts posit that introduction of corporate, profit-driven entities is generally not desirable in spaces that are managed by community, and for the community. A concept that gets brought up in these discussions, and the thing that people fear will happen if corporate encroachment is not resisted, is embrace, extend, extinguish, or, with more penchant for the dramatic, embrace, extend, exterminate (EEE for short). But, what is it, and how likely is it to happen?

The original embrace, extend, extinguish

In the ancient days of 1990s, before the inception of Google or Facebook, tech's prototypical giant evil corporation was Microsoft. Like today, Windows was dominant on the desktop, and unlike today, desktop was how most end-users did computers.

Microsoft of that era engaged in many practices aimed at locking users into its products. An example is Microsoft's approach to Java. At the time, Java was a hyped new technology, as it promised a platform which could be used for distributing software (applets) over the Internet, while enabling developers to target the Java Virtual Machine, instead of the underlying operating system. Microsoft, indeed, embraced Java—there was even a Microsoft Java Virtual Machine.

Microsoft also had concerns. Code written for the Java VM was not tied to Windows, and the Java VM could run on multiple operating systems. This meant that users were now less locked into Windows. To address this, Microsoft extended their Java VM with an API that allowed calling into the Windows API from Java. The standard Java platform contained abstractions over the operating system's API, which meant that code written for the standard Java platform was portable. The Microsoft extensions worked only with Windows, so anyone who wrote Java code that used the extensions was writing code that, despite being Java, would only work on Microsoft's operating systems. Sun Microsystems—creators of Java and holders of Java trademarks and copyrights—sued Microsoft over this, and eventually reached a settlement. Ultimately, Microsoft discontinued their own version of the Java VM.

In the 1990s, the World Wide Web was an emergent technology that everyone—including Microsoft—wanted to get in on. Bill Gates, who at that point still took an active role in setting the direction of Microsoft, publicly declared the intention to "embrace and extend" the related standards. Microsoft's actions in the area, however, were a source of even more legal issues for the corporation, this time from American antitrust authorities. Towards the end of the 1990s and in the early 2000s, Microsoft was subject to protracted legal proceedings, brought by the United States Department of Justice.

It was during one phase of this United States v. Microsoft Corp trial that an Intel executive, Steven McGeady, was put on the witness stand. In his testimony, he recalled a 1995 meeting between Intel and Microsoft, on the two companies' involvement in the development of the Internet. According to McGeady, during that meeting, Paul Maritz—a Microsoft Executive—said that it was Microsoft's strategy to "embrace, extend, extinguish" Internet standards.

Soon, embrace, extend, extinguish became a popular, pithy descriptor of Microsoft's strategy, and a way to criticize it. Microsoft, indeed, embraced web standards, extended them with proprietary additions, and attempted to extinguish any competition. Evidence submitted during the antitrust trial included, for example, late 1990s memos, in which Bill Gates discussed the fact that browser-based viewers for Microsoft Office documents worked in non-Microsoft web browsers. Gates believed that this hurt the position of Windows on the market. "We have to stop putting any effort into this and make sure that Office documents very well depends on PROPRIETARY IE capabilities", he urged.

It took until the mid-2000s for the dominance of Internet Explorer to wane. New browsers—like Firefox—offered a better user experience in many areas, which meant that many users preferred them to IE. Internet Explorer also continued with its own idiosyncrasies when it came to adhering to web standards. Web developers could either produce websites which worked in every other browser while being broken in IE, or do extra work to also make them work in IE. The fatigue with this situation, combined with later entry of Google into the browser market with Chrome, meant that Microsoft was no longer able to deploy its EEE ways to the extent that it could before.

Before that, EEE did work, at least for a while. In 2023, Microsoft Windows still remains the most popular operating system for desktop and laptop computers. Microsoft's early efforts at locking their position in the market are likely a factor here, even if modern Microsoft's EEE efforts do not have the same overtness and intensity as they did during the 1990s.

And, indeed, Microsoft of today likes to present itself as a company more interested in embracing open standards without the old Microsoft's ulterior motives. It is still a corporation, and like all corporations it does not do things out of the kindness of its corporate heart. People have, however, grown more wise to the EEE ways over the intervening decades, and so blatant attempts at locking them in are more likely to be rejected, in favor of more open platforms. Lock-in requires more subtlety now.


In 2004, Google announced that they would start offering an email service. The available storage for email would be 1 GB, which was an impressive amount at the time. Per-gigabyte cost of storage was in the single digits of US dollars at the time (in 2023, hard drive storage per-gigabyte cost is under 0.10 USD). Seeing gigabytes of stuff was not unfathomable to the people of 2004, but free email services tended to offer inboxes of maybe a dozen megabytes. On those services, it was expected old email would be regularly deleted to make room for new incoming email. Gmail, on the other hand, promised you would not have to delete your emails again.

Gmail also offered a spiffy Web client for reading and sending email. By 2004, webmail had been a thing for a while, but Gmail did webmail in a way that more resembled a modern web app of later years. JavaScript-based interfaces, which could load new data without reloading the whole page, were still a fairly new trend. Gmail's web app was a cool new thing, compared to other free webmail offerings. Google also offered other perks, like free POP access (which is an older standard for accessing email from a desktop email client), at a time when other free email providers used a strategy of limiting free features to get people to subscribe to an expanded, paid offering.

Immediately after it was first announced, Gmail became the hot new thing. During the initial rollout, when Gmail was invite-only, people were actually willing to pay money for an invite (which is the type of hype some startups still try to recreate in 2023). Throughout the 19 years since Gmail's start, its free offering remained ahead of those of other free providers. For a lot of people in need of a free email account, Gmail has thus established itself as the default option. It may be the most popular email service overall, although the exact numbers are hard to figure out, since we cannot see all the email use out there.

The dominance of Gmail does come with some downsides. As email spam remains a persistent problem, Gmail offers spam filtering. This means that they reject some of the emails that are sent to their servers, often according to criteria that are opaque to the senders. When your own small email server gets consistently rejected by another, small server, it is a small problem; when your server gets rejected by Gmail, it is a comparatively larger problem. Being rejected by Gmail's servers for unclear reasons, despite not originating any spam traffic is something that indeed happens to people trying to host their own email. Being denied the ability to talk any Gmail user means being denied the ability to talk to quite a lot of people. Gmail, thus, has an outsize influence over who can manage to effectively self-host email, and indirectly controls the market of other service providers.


The Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) is an instant messaging protocol which first emerged (under the name Jabber) in the late 1990s. Instant messaging (IM) software already existed at the time, even if modern smartphones did not. IM programs were generally used by someone at a desktop or laptop computer to chat, via text, in real time, with other people on their desktop or laptop computers. Presence is part of the protocol's name, because a user would have to know who else is also online at the same time, and thus available for chatting.

XMPP was an alternative to other, proprietary services. ICQ, Microsoft's MSN Messenger, and AOL's AIM were some of the proprietary IM services enjoyed mainstream popularity through the 2000s. XMPP was, however, the decentralized, open source alternative to the proprietary IM services that put their traffic through a corporation's servers. With XMPP, anyone could host a server, and XMPP servers could talk to each other using a standard protocol, allowing users on one server to send instant messages to users on other XMPP servers. XMPP could be also be used without federation, making it useful as basis for things like internal communication tools. It is easier to use an existing protocol, with available software, than to invent something from scratch.

Indeed, Google chose XMPP as the backing protocol for their Google Talk software. Google Talk first appeared in mid-2005, and although it used XMPP, initially Google Talk users could only chat with other Google Talk users. Google turned open federation on in early 2006, enabling users on other XMPP servers and Talk users to communicate with each other.

Google Talk incorporated a bunch of Google-specific extensions to XMPP (which is, after all, extensible). Standard XMPP clients could be used with Google Talk, but the added features would not always work. Some extensions, though, were eventually standardized: Jingle, for example, started as a Talk extension used for establishing voice calls, but eventually had a standard specification published, and is now part of mainline XMPP clients.

As is often the case with Google, Talk was eventually discontinued. In the early 2010s, Google decided to move away from Talk and to Google Hangouts (which was not based XMPP). To that end, they stopped federating their XMPP servers, discontinued the various desktop and mobile apps, and removed Talk widgets from Google web apps. The servers themselves remained up, and reachable through third-party XMPP clients all the way up until 2022. By 2022, Google was actually moving away from Hangouts, and to other messaging apps.

One can, of course, still use XMPP today. It remains an open standard. The XMPP Standards Foundation still maintains extension standards (called XEPs). There still is maintained server and client software, that runs on modern platforms. Like with email, the user counts are unclear, since there is not a central authority with an overview of all XMPP users, but there are at least some users out there.

Was it EEE?

Microsoft's strategy in the 1990s and early 2000s was clear: if something is open, add proprietary bits to ensure vendor lock-in, and thus maintain ongoing monopoly and market domination. Was Google's strategy the same? Did Google seek to exterminate email? Did they purposefully kill XMPP?

One interpretation is that over the 2000s, corporations moved away from embrace, extend, extinguish strategies. After all, EEE did get Microsoft into frequent legal trouble. People became aware of EEE, and rather than getting locked into a piece of software, would seek out alternative solutions that adhere to standards. Market domination is still possible under these conditions, but requires different approaches. Google, for example, didn't need to lock people into their email offering with proprietary extensions, because email addresses are already a form of lock-in by themselves—having to tell everyone you've switched your email address is annoying. Google's size means it can offer more for free as a loss-leader, and achieve domination that way.

Another interpretation is that corporations have gotten sneakier. You cannot pull a Microsoft anymore—all the coverage of Microsoft's EEE practices in the past means that people know what that looks like. Instead, you have to appear to embrace open standards without ulterior motives, while slipping in subtle incompatibilities. Large corporations with large user bases can dictate how a standard goes—if they move in one direction, everyone has to follow, or be left behind. When Google came out with Jingle, everyone had to get on board; Google, on the other hand, did not have to get on board with anyone else's extensions if it did not want to. Such dominance grants control, which can be used to extinguish a standard, without having to go for blatant lock-in.

Does it ultimately matter, though? One could argue that Google killed XMPP by endorsing it at first and then pulling out of the space, taking all the users with it. One could also argue that XMPP was an obscure chat protocol for a bunch nerds, designed for an older mode of communication, that saw several million users come in and then leave, putting it back where it started. One could argue whether Google intentionally killed XMPP in order to eliminate open competition, and push for its own IM platforms, or if Google simply boldly steered its bulk into the space, without caring who gets caught in the wake. But, does it matter? The results are what they are.

The future of the Fediverse

When rumors and reports of the possible involvement of Facebook (allegedly properly known as Meta) in the Fediverse began to circulate on the Fediverse, one of the concerns brought up was that the corporation's intentions were underhanded. The fear was that Facebook wanted to EEE the Fediverse.

In the end, though, it does not really matter if a corporation like Meta enters the Fediverse with intentions that are actively malicious, or not.

One might be tempted by the prospects that corporate involvement is going to lead to more work being done on the protocol and associated software, for the benefit of all. For those who care about there being more people on the Fediverse, welcoming a large corporation also sounds like a good way to bring in more users.

Corporations are, however, interested in mutually beneficial arrangements only because of the side of the arrangement that is beneficial for the corporation. When a corporation promises benefits to the community in exchange for the community letting it in, those benefits are only side effects that the corporation is willing to put forward as incentives. Profit is the primary goal of the corporation, and anything it does for the community is in pursuit of that.

Immediate, outright blocking of any attempt by Facebook to enter the Fediverse may seem like an excessive reaction; it is, however, an understandable one. Rejecting corporate entry into the space signals that, at least in that part of the Fediverse, corporate interests are not welcome, and that community is valued more than increased growth or mainstream acceptance. Principles of open federation that require unconditionally admitting all corporate actors may seem ideologically desirable, on some abstract level. On a slightly less abstract level, they potentially require admitting an actor that is not going to act in good faith, and will be harmful to the community—a thing that is, from an ideological perspective, undesirable.

Perhaps Meta would not be able to kill the Fediverse anyway. Large portions of the Fediverse, after all, were made by, and are populated by people who wanted to get away from corporate social media. The Fediverse is evidence that moving away from corporate social media is possible. Perhaps Facebook, when allowed to run free, would at most capture a portion of the Fediverse, find the lack of control limiting, find the opportunities for profit lacking, and leave by itself. Rejecting Meta outright from the start saves the Fediverse all that trouble, though.

More information

Websites about excluding Facebook/Meta from the Fediverse: