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When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, the internet was just a network of computers housed in universities and other academic institutions. Many have said that his idea of building connections using a hypertext markup to connect different pages of content gave us the web of information we rely on so heavily today. While that may be the case, the internet would never have grown to what it has had it not been for the fact that he chose to build it as an open and decentralized system.

The internet today is far from decentralized. 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 socialize with one another. 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 has become a valve through which information on the internet flows, allowing them to derive an unprecedented level of understanding about the things that affect us.

In a post back 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, one that he called Solid. Instead of giving 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.

As interesting as this is, it is possible to solve the centralization problem by approaching it from a different direction. 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 and interoperable alternative to the closed and self-contained platforms that dominate e-commerce today. If successful, it will give businesses of all shapes and sizes an opportunity to leverage the true promise of the internet without being beholden to dominant platforms.

At its core, Beckn is a set of protocols that offer a range of commercial functionality and sector-specific applications that can be used by a wide variety of commercial enterprises to carry out business activities. Think of it as a box of Lego bricks that can be assembled into different configurations to suit the needs of a specific commercial enterprise. Currently, a store owner can only get such “Lego" blocks from one, or at best two, vendors. Beckn opens this market up dramatically, allowing one to get these blocks from a wide variety of vendors.

If, for example, you are a local grocer looking to establish a digital presence, Beckn can help you display your inventory online, find service providers to take and process your orders, and an entirely different set of service providers to deliver them to your customer. Every service that you string together like this forms yet another Beckn-enabled business, which, just like yours, would have designed its offerings to be available in this modular and interoperable fashion.

Beckn achieves this sort of interoperability by unbundling the packet transmission layer from the experience layer, so that the core elements of commercial transactions—discovery, order booking, payment, delivery and fulfillment—are processed in a standardized fashion. At the same time, Beckn makes it possible for developers to customize the user experience on top of that, giving rise to a wide spectrum of modular processes that can be combined in virtually infinite ways to serve various requirements, both at the customer and the provider ends, all the while talking seamlessly to each other through the underlying transactional layer.

Beckn isn’t attempting to become another e-commerce platform. To the contrary, it is looking to design the digital scaffolding on which providers of goods and services can build open and interoperable commercial modules that could be combined to create a platform for everyone to benefit from and contribute to. 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 neighbourhood grocers—to leverage the power of the open internet for outcomes that are advantageous to all involved.

Beckn is ambitious in scope. In order to become the foundational e-commerce architecture that it aspires to, it will have to convince existing businesses to make their services interoperable with other Beckn providers. Until it achieves critical mass, many will hold back, preferring to take their chances on their own or with 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’ve already demonstrated that we can build population-scale platforms in various sectors. And while the world’s big platforms have a strong presence in the country, there are vast swathes of the population they have still not been able to reach.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and also has a podcast by the name Ex Machina. His Twitter handle is @matthan

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