The Beckn Protocol
When I first came across Beckn it was described to me as a new way of thinking about urban mobility. I have to say I was mildly surprised - not because I was skeptical of its viability but because mobility didn’t seem like a vertical particularly in need of a technology fix. But the recently released Beckn protocol is much grander than the original vision. It encompasses all commercial transactions and attempts to eliminate our reliance on the big technology platforms that dominate the digital commerce landscape.
This is an expanded version of the article I wrote for my weekly Ex Machina column in the Mint. You can read the original article at this link.
The Open Internet
When Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, the internet was just a network of computers housed in universities and other academic institutions. But very early on he had a vision of how much more this network could become.
I have written previously about how, in its original conceptualisation, the internet was supposed to have bi-directional links making the connections between different elements of data tighter and consequently more verifiable. While that original vision was ultimately diluted many believe that it was this idea of building connections using a hypertext markup to connect pages of content, that was responsible for the web of information that we rely on so heavily today.
There is no doubt that hypertext was, and continues to be, an important feature of the internet. It is the reason information is so easily accessible and why clicking on even the few hyperlinks on this page can send you down a rabbit-hole of information for hours. But as much as hypertext radically transformed access to data, the internet did not proliferate because of it. The real reason why the internet as we know it today has grown to what it is, has to do with a simple design choice - the decision to build it out as an open, decentralised system.
The Internet Today
The internet today is far from decentralised. Even though nothing much has changed at the level of the underlying architecture, all our interactions on the internet take place through a few giant platforms that give us access to content, allow us to engage in commercial activities and to socialise with each other. The experience layer that these platforms have built on top of the open architecture of the web has, for most of us, become the only way in which we engage with the internet. As a result, each of these platforms have become the valves through which the information on the internet flows allowing them to derive an unprecedented level of understanding about the things that affect us.
In a post in 2018, Tim Berners-Lee bemoaned what his invention had become. "[F]or all the good we’ve achieved,", he said "the web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas." His solution was to build a new, user-centric alternative to what the internet had become - that he called Solid. Instead of giving the internet platforms control over our data, Solid allows users to store their data in pods that they can share as they see fit in a tightly permissioned way so that they can control how this data is subsequently used and by whom.
I have written about the Solid project before. As much as the idea of giving users control over their data struck a chord with me, I was skeptical about whether something like this would actually catch on. The platforms are too entrenched - their control over the internet too pervasive. It might be easier - and more effective - to just implement complete data portability, forcing the platforms to share the data they have about us with any other platform we choose.
It might be possible to solve the centralisation problem by coming at it from an entirely different direction. Instead of forcing existing platforms to share the data that they have about us, what if we can take them out of the equation entirely.
The recently released Beckn protocol stack aims to do just that. Rather than tackling the issue from the ground up, Beckn is looking to offer an open, interoperable alternative to the closed, self-contained platforms that dominate eCommerce today. If successful, it will give businesses of all shapes and sizes the opportunity to leverage the promise that the internet offers without being beholden to the dominant platforms.
The Beckn Protocols
At its core, Beckn is nothing more than a set of protocols that enable market participants in any commercial ecosystem to interact directly with each other without the need for a platform intermediary. These protocols offer a range of commercial functionality by laying down the specifications for a large number of interoperable microservices. Think of them as lego bricks that can be assembled into different configurations to suit the specific needs of a wide variety of commercial enterprises. Today a business that wants to set up a digital presence can only get these lego blocks from the handful of platforms that effectively function as the valves of online commerce. Beckn radically opens this up by allowing them to get their lego blocks from every other business that is Beckn-enabled.
If, for example, you are a local grocer looking to make the contents of your store accessible online - Beckn can help you display your inventory so that it is discoverable online, find service providers to take and process your orders, and an entirely different set of service providers to deliver them to your customer. Each of the services that you string together like this is to create your digital storefront is just another Beckn enabled business which, much like you, has designed its offering to be available in this modular, interoperable fashion.
Beckn achieves this decentralisation by unbundling the packet transmission from the experience layer. This means that no matter what the nature of your business is or how you choose to display yourself to your customers, your commercial offering is stripped down to its core elements - discovery, order booking, payment, delivery and fulfilment. Then, by treating each of these elements as micro-transactions, Beckn allows any or all of them to be carried out by a variety of Beckn-enabled enterprises.
What this does is make it possible for developers to customise a bespoke user experience on top of the same basic commercial underpinning. This means that we will soon have a wide spectrum of modular processes, each of which are capable of being combined together in virtually infinite ways. This will give rise to a variety of highly differentiated user experiences both for customers as well as for the providers of goods and services - all the while ensuring that the commercial ecosystem is capable of talking to each other over the underlying transactional layer.
Not Another eCommerce Platform
Beckn isn't attempting to become another eCommerce platform. To the contrary, it is looking to design the digital scaffolding on which providers of goods and services can build open, interoperable commercial offerings that can be combined to create a platform that everyone can contribute to and benefit from. It promises to take any existing commercial service offering and make it digitally accessible. At scale, it will allow any location-aware commercial operation - from fleet operators to last-mile delivery services, from large department stores to your local grocer - to leverage the power of the open internet to their mutual advantage.
Beckn is ambitious in scope. In order to become the foundational eCommerce architecture that it aspires to, it will have to convince existing businesses to make their services interoperable with other Beckn providers. This will not be easy and until it achieves critical mass, far more businesses will hold back than will agree to participate - preferring to take their chances with the more established digital commerce platforms than take a risk on a new idea.
But if there is a country in which this idea has a chance of taking root, it is India. We have already demonstrated that we are capable of building population scale platforms in various sectors. And while the big platforms do have a strong presence in the country, there remain vast swathes of the population and regions of the country that they have yet to cover. If we can create an alternative digital infrastructure for commerce in India, we can make a tremendous difference.