The Web is Against the Ropes, But it’s Not Dead

Posted on Sep 10, 2010 | 29 comments


I had a really fun 20-minute interview with Howard Lindzon of Stock Twits as part of a 5-part series on whether the web is dead.  If you have 20 minutes I think you’ll enjoy watching.  I’ve also covered the general topic in the text below the video embed.  Obviously taking on this topic is bound to be controversial and I’m not trying to pick many fights but I think it’s worth a healthy debate.

Part 1 on YouTube
Part 2 on YouTube

The topic of whether the web is dead was kicked off by Chris Andersen of Wired Magazine in this article.  The premise is that with the rise of Facebook on the Internet & Apple “Apps” on mobile, the Internet is becoming more closed.  I discussed these issues in the video.

The start of the argument is that you need to separate using the Internet into “infrastructure & cloud services” (basically the protocols of the Internet such as HTTP, TCP/IP, SMTP, etc. + web storage, elastic computing) from how you consume the Internet as a user (the front end – HTML).

The Internet existed long before the World Wide Web and web browsers were created.  What was important about the Web is that it made it significantly easier for people to develop content that could be consumed by other people given the HTML mark-up language and it was open so anybody was free to create websites that others could discover and consume.

During the 90’s the predominant access to the Internet for many users was AOL.  The problem with AOL is that they bundled content with access and that content wasn’t really the web.  It was AOL.  It was closed.  It existed in their “walled garden” and they controlled it.  But that didn’t stop my mom from telling me, “honey, I’m on the Internet!”  “Um, no Mom.  You’re on AOL. That’s different.”  They even went so far as to offer their own browser rather than an open browser.  Brands took out advertisements espousing their “AOL Keyword.”

The initial web HTML / browser experience was very limited.  Many of us argued at the time that the browsers would get more powerful and we bet our companies on that by not developing client applications.  My first company was a SaaS software company started in 1999.  Our view then (kind of obvious now) was that software would be consumed the way that consumer Internet sites were back then.

Over time, with the growth of the popularity of AJAX we had a richer experience as users and as developers.  We could update small portions of the screen rather than an entire refresh.  We could give more control to allow users to do things like scroll a map on Google Maps.  And thus our simplistic web interfaces became power applications and the business web flourished.

Mobile now is a bit like the web / browser experience was in the early days of the Internet.  The browsers can’t yet support all the things we want like the accelerometer, the camera, GPS / location, etc.  So for the time being “apps” have won.  But as I argued in my “App is Crap” post I don’t believe that this will be the long run solution on mobile devices.  I don’t want a world in which some centralized figure decides that there are too many fart applications.  That world is called China.  And I believe that people over time and given a choice rally around openness.  Even in China.

But round one clearly has gone to Apple and to “apps.”

For the record I have always said that certain apps are always better built locally rather than through a browser and it could be that most high-end games always stay that way.  But I’m betting my money on the growth of HTML5 and the improvement of mobile browsers.  The “mobile web” is against the ropes but I’m betting that like Rocky it’s poised for a come back.  I own an HTC Incredible built on Google Android both because it’s open and because it’s built on a network that I get to choose (Verizon) not chosen for me by a sweatheart deal cut by a tech company (Apple) to maximize their revenue (through AT&T) rather than my utility (a network that works at my house).

But what about the “fixed” world (e.g. non-mobile).  Openness seems to be against the ropes there, too.   Check out this chart on Silicon Alley Insider, which shows that total time spent on Facebook has now surpassed that of Google sites.

As you know, Facebook is not “open” it is controlled by a single company by their company-defined standards.  My mom uses Facebook.  “Honey, I’m on Facebook.”  “Um, Mom, that’s not really the Internet either.  It’s Facebook.  It’s a closed system. It’s the InterNOT.”

It’s a walled garden all over again.  And now brands are advertising “www.facebook.com/brandname.”  Plus ça change. I’m not anti Facebook.  I happily use the product.  Not the same as how I use Twitter, which is open, but I use it.

So why do I believe that the future is more about the web + the Internet vs. the InterNOT?  Because over time users will demand open.  Over time brands will realize that marketing into a closed system isn’t good for their long-term customer relationships.  Over time developers will realize that they’re building into a platform that sets all of the rules.  If you wonder how developers feel check out this discussion about developing on the Facebook platform.

So do I believe that Facebook will lose in the end?  No.  Mark Zuckerberg (despite all criticisms he gets) has proved to be the most nimble and decisive entrepreneur of this generation.  I think they have a chance to turn their closed system into an open and less controlling one over time.  If they don’t I believe the opportunity is there for other companies to do it and disrupt Facebook.

I know Facebook seems to have a lock on the market right now but those who have been around long enough and remember history will know we’ve been here before.  AOL was once thought unstoppable.  As was Microsoft.  Dell was once unbeatable.  As was Google.  Market forces win.  And I believe that market forces, short of physical armies constraining them, bend toward open.

Launch a closed iPhone ecosystem?  Watch the market rally around Android.  It will take time but I’ve already told you where my money is (and I answered the question really directly in the video).  Launch a closed iTunes / iTV?  Create market opportunities for everybody else to partner with Google or Boxee.  Lock users into proprietary rights management, distribution or consumption models?  They’ll find a way around them.

Me? I choose open.

  • Joelyoung7

    I've long been stymied by the open v. closed debate. As a consumer, I simply choose products that suit my needs. As an example, I'm thrilled with the offerings of Apple's App Store, and have yet to find myself wanting for app's not available to me due to its closed nature. And yes, AT&T bites, but I weighed that against my smartphone preferences / needs when I chose an iPhone over other offerings last year.

    My question: If two products have identical functionality from an end user perspective, what is the benefit in choosing the one that was born from and lives in an open system? What I think I'm hearing is that supporting open system products will give me more choices, especially long term, the end result being better products via increased competition. This sounds reasonable.

    Still, I'll continue buying the best products for me, philosophical approach be damned. Have to admit Android-based smartphones have piqued my interest. We'll see what I buy when it's time to retire the 3G.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    3 thoughts:

    1. I understand why consumers make decisions like this. It's a better a product in the short-term so I understand. I don't have the option because I have zero bars at my house. But I do own an iPad

    2. My argument stems more from the developer standpoint. You can't build for 5 platforms. So having a unified open standard helps drive lower costs, broader adoption.

    3. That said, you should care about open vs. closed. Steve Jobs decided he's against women in bathing suits. Apple originally banned an app from a political cartoonist – the same guy who won the Pulitzer Prize. The argument is analogous to government. You should care because you don't want to live in world where one person gets to decide what is right for everybody else. It's a principle.

  • Russ Dollinger

    Good article. Thank you.

    Everyone seems to have a problem in one area or another with this or that provider.

    How about if some new company buys time from all the providers and then your phone chooses the system with the mest reception.

    Obviously the phones would need to be able to handle different systems, but I believe that in the long run everybody would win.

  • Russ Dollinger

    Since I created a new word, “mest.” You can take it to mean a combination of “best” and “most.”

  • cheolhominale

    Great article. I couldn't agree with you more. I think its ready to happen in that developers and companies will be sick of developing for different platforms ( android, ios, rim, even webos ), sick of apples control, and will return to the web. I think its just a matter of the browsers on mobile to catch up , and I'm putting my money on Google. I see the same way they introduced google maps, and what could be done with ajax.. they will do with the mobile browser eventually.

  • Kylepearson

    Regarding the open vs closed platforms in phones, how do you see that coming about? I get the android open source sounding great, but if we have so many different phone manufacturers, how do all those companies converge on the “best” code to use? Or do we just have to wait until one blows up enough (android?) that everybody else accomodates

  • http://twitter.com/Steez977 Steez

    I like this post but don't fully agree. All ecosystems thrive/stall over their lifetime, some re-invent themselves and have multiple lifetimes.

    The masses don't like choice, they're happier when you tell them what to pick … I disagree the masses gravitate to 'open' they gravitate to what other people tell them to do or use.

    Fex. You're in a nice restaurant in [enter_country_you_don't_speak_the_language], and looking at the menu, you don't know what's what. The waiter comes to your table and explains in reasonable English what the delicious specials of the day are, points out the fresh fish dish straight from the market. I think you'll gladly eat the fish and feel happy about having him tell you what to eat, you won't even perceive it as being told, you'll see it as integrating in a foreign culture and trying something new.

    This is how a lot of people feel when it comes down to technology. People like yourself might disagree but that is because you're tech savy. As technology and the underlying tech is becomming more invisible and commoditised, even less and less people will feel the need to figure out how things work.

    Another thing, people are lazy, hence I feel push technoglogy (what most of the apps are) will win over open systems (what browsers are), simply because it requires less effort.

    Who would you publish to to an 'open' FB? .. the whole FB community? It doesn't make sense. FB should (and probably will) do a better job in categorising your contacts so you chose from groups.
    Twitter to me is a closed system. You more or less advertise on a service(=app), this service can be a list of tech magazines, sport websites etc. They look open and are all built the same. Buyt they're “apps” by philosophy: A closed off lil' system/app/service that you build yourself by adding/subscring to certain twitter accounts.

    As always Mr Suster, enjoying your insights!
    Have a nice weekend.

  • http://www.lilbil.com Will Chow

    There are lots of different types of “open” out there, and there actually are several types conflated in the post: Android vs iPhone is a different openness than FB vs Diaspora. I think the key characteristics here is open = competitive. With a truly competitive environment (as opposed to artificially imposed constraints) where you can have an unlimited # of companies taking their best shot at winning the customer, you'll inevitably have _better_ products. This is why Mark said “Market forces win”. So, it isn't whether customers are choosing between open vs closed with two equivalent products, it's that an “open” product will ultimately be “better”. In the PC wars, this one was won not on software (Windows was just “good enough”), but rather on better hardware and better prices. Plus ça change = Déjà vu.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, it is a problem today. But I believe it will be solved when we have more powerful browser standards and developers can build for a browser platform.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Hey, thanks for commenting. I always appreciate when people take a stand. With regards to consumer choice – I agree. I think that people ultimately prefer simplicity. But on the developers side I am more concerned where a proliferation of devices and OS's would lead to developers having to make choices and they would gravitate toward only developing on the biggest platforms and thus stifling innovation.

    And on the consumer side, even though we prefer less choice, I think we at least appreciate choice that comes about democratically. I'd much prefer the “wisdom of the crowds” boiling up the good stuff than a top-down censor telling me what to like / watch / read / play with.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thank you. Well articulated. And furthering your thoughts … what we powerful about the PC environment CERTAINLY wasn't the OS software but rather that the stack was open so that developers could build stuff at each level of the stack vs. Apple who tried to control the whole thing. It's true that I'm typing this on my beautiful MacBook Pro, which I love. So I know that's a paradox. But I prefer open-market innovation in the long run.

  • http://twitter.com/aumg Gregg Borodaty

    As someone who has staked his company on the mobile web, I couldn't agree more. However, there is one major problem that needs solved with mobile web adoption that did not exist on the desktop due to Microsoft's dominance – fragmentation. There are no less than four major mobile operating systems today – iOS, Android, BlackBerry OS, and Symbian (we tend to ignore Nokia in the US even though they are the global market leader). Microsoft is adding Windows Phone 7 to the mix, and I expect HP will make a push with webOS before the end of the year as well. Sure, if the companies got together, they could create a common browser platform for developers, but I don't see it happening. There's too much at stake.

    The great news is that where there are problems there are opportunities. In other words, fragmentation of the mobile market will continue to be a problem for developers, but only a temporary one. There are solutions out there today, and ones being developed, that will address the fragmentation and lead to the dominance of the mobile web as an open platform for mobile.

    By the way, thanks for posting the video, it was well done and I enjoyed watching it.

  • Rachel Lee Sh

    Very good blog post. I learned a lot! Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    I've got your android/Verizon combo beat Mark, jailbroken iPhone 3Gs with no phone plan. I use gizmo & google voice for unlimited free calling in the states and cheap global calling.

    Agree that most consumers will prefer open, but open can be a complex feature. Time and again we see closed as the simpler solution for many.

    Both open and closed options coexist in mature markets like Ying and Yang, Peanut Butter and Jelly, and Cookies and my belly :)

  • Roman Giverts

    Mark,
    how do you think you experience as an “enterprise software” guy helps u as a consumer internet focused investor?

    Roman

  • http://avc.com fredwilson

    awesome post Mark. i could not have said it better.

  • http://avc.com fredwilson

    i wish howard had asked why you were short foursquare at $100m. i'm particularly curious if it foursquare the service or the $100mm value that caused you to answer that way.

  • http://www.5o9inc.com/ Peter Cranstone

    Hi Mark,

    You wrote: ” The browsers can’t yet support all the things we want like the accelerometer, the camera, GPS / location, etc.”

    Yes they can. We demo'd it to you – remember. All you need is a plugin and it all works. Years before HTML5 will ever be a standard there's already a solution out there.

    Here's another gem – a few days ago an expert contacted us saying “there's no known way to measure HTTP traffic performance in a mobile browser”. Hint – you're really going to need this tool if you want Open to succeed. It took us 7 hours to prove the individual incorrect. Androids Mobile browser now supports the ability to accurately measure HTTP traffic. You can even see that one of Google's static image servers isn't quite up to snuff, look at the very last image. (http://bit.ly/91VglD).

    You were a 100% right with your app is crap post. No argument from me. But as for HTML5 winning the day – not so much. It's all about the battle for your data – HTML5 is trying to do it, but lacks performance and privacy controls, plus it will take years for the OEM's to update their mobile browsers.

    We know what the enterprise wants – one platform (the Web) one interface (the browser) access to multiple data sets (the context) – but we all forget what the consumer wants – Convenience, Privacy and Control – Open won't win until it address everybody's concerns.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Well, I would say that we always designed our enterprise software in a consumer like way. You can see what we built in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8Y31F_tuEM

    But more broadly of the 6 companies I've invested in (only 4 announced), 5 of them are not “consumer” companies but rather B2B companies whose technology supports consumer companies. I'm open to both.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Only the price. I've talked about it at length on This Week in VC. I think FourSquare has been THE innovator in this space. My only issue with FourSquare as an investor was “price paid relative to stage.” Marc A has a view about VC that you bet on the “few companies each year that matter” and with a $600 million fund (and other one coming) he can afford to be less valuation sensitive. I cannot.

    Anyone interested in my views on FourSquare can read this short write-up http://bit.ly/dacsrQ – the person with whom I was speaking was not Fred.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Peter, I grant you that HTML5 might not win. I should have made it more clear that some open web browser will win. HTML5 just being the standard that everybody is focused on now. The truth is that I don't know how it will evolve.

  • http://www.5o9inc.com/ Peter Cranstone

    Mark,

    HTML5 will win – it won't be a pretty finish (like Rocky above) but it will happen, simply because it is open. Closed gives you the illusion of convenience and control, Open actually gives you control if you're prepared to work at it. The main hurdle to HTML5 is the competing agendas. It's all about “control” of the customers meta data. Google understands this and is building an ecosystem that contains customers meta data. Apple has done it as well a long with Microsoft. The ultimate digital walled garden is in process as we speak.

    Unbeknownst to the above 3 that's not the web as you and I know it. The web is far richer, far deeper and far more expressive than Google, Apple et al would want you to know about. What they foster is convenience and for that you give up control of your meta data.

    And as I sit here and type this I say to myself – what if there was another way. What if you could have an Open Standard like the Web and offer customers Convenience, Privacy and Control over their meta data for everywhere they go on the web.

    I chatted with Mr. Performance the other day at Google. This was the individual who sent me the email on measuring HTTP performance. At the 47 minute mark in our conversation he got it – the future of the web is about personalization, it's about sharing my meta data with web sites that I trust. Google et al would have you convinced that they can service all your needs. They're wrong. It's only part of the picture – you have to have the ability to extend your trust in real time wherever you are, and with whatever you're using to connect to the web.

    As they say – “it's the tools stupid”. Where are the tools that make this happen, AND which leverage ALL open standards. HTML5 is a start but it's incomplete – you'll need more, and you'll need it faster than you think.

  • jsjohnst

    You had me up until you said “I own an HTC Incredible built on Google Android both because it’s open” … “open” for who? Certainly not you! Carriers it sure is.

  • amolpatil2k

    The bottomline is that Rulers don't want the open Web. They gave us 20 years of haphazard standards, signal to noise depletion and malware to get us tired of it completely. So that later when we are stuck in an Apple, Google, Yahoo or Facebook closed network, we should never look back and say OPEN was GOOD.

    They know that better than being strict about Openness, they can sensitize us by privately trashing it in every which way. They have done this in every field. Since forever, there has been a fight between rulers and the ruled. The former have always won. I know that you'll bring up several cases of revolution but maybe you don't know who the rulers are then. Simply put RULERS always WIN whether they are right or not. The future has already been decided. It is just how painful or painless they want the transition to be. Such articles try to reduce the pain by conditioning us for it.

  • http://www.twitter.com/biggiesu Mike Su

    I think it's more nuanced than that though. I think many new technologies or early services benefit greatly from being closed (I know, going out on a limb to predict that the iPhone will be HUGE by 2009!!!). But a closed system does have it's benefits, and too many products start out their life as engineering projects that are super open and only suitable for early adopters because they are of the Open Religion. I believe many of those would actually benefit from being closed systems designed to deliver great user experiences for everyone, rather than niche product that only the earliest of adopters really understand the potential of, who mourn when it gets it's ass kicked by some dumb, closed system.

    These are not just benefits to the consumer, however. For example, Android, for all of its open awesomeness, presents some serious challenges for developers. It has 80 different devices all with different hardware specs, screen size/resolution, firmware versions, flavors of Android etc. For a 2-3 person dev team wanting to build a game, they can either build for 1 Apple device (or at most 2) and hit a massive market. Or they can acquire 80 different phones (I don't know what the actual number is) and do compatibility testing across all the different permutations to make sure that their users get a good experience. And even then, the next new device may not work with the game, leaving users to hate the app. Regardless of user adoption, this makes developing for android significantly more challenging and expensive, so no matter how much you love open, unless you're EA, it's really hard to justify spending any resources developing for Android. Closed systems makes this far simpler.

    I do agree, however, in the long run open wins, but not at every stage of a given technology.

  • http://www.tempworks.com Gregg Dourgarian

    Brilliant post and comments but …no mention of Silverlight?

    Grandma and the UK govt won't be upgrading their IE6 browsers for years, and notions of an html5 standard are all over the place. So let's block that Stallone metaphor of a long but successful fight for html5. It's pure fantasy.

    Meanwhile developers (remember them?) want to develop once and play everywhere.

  • thomasruland

    Absolutely great interview, Mark!
    I think the ultimately most important point is that developers don't want to develop an app “for an iphone,android ,windows 7, RIM, nokia, for the 15 things we never heard of “. If there are easier ways like using HTML5 and thereby bypassing all the extra effort it will be powerful enough to create a strong market automatically. I agree with Steez below. Masses will not graviate somewhere, they will be guided and developers will guide them appropriately to open systems.

  • Haitham AlHumsi

    I agree with #2 (having gone through a development experience for both platforms) but my problem with ‘unlimited’ openness the way android does it is there is no cost effective way to design across 10s of screen sizes, 10s of resoultions …etc

    If the trump card is user experience then knowing that you are designing for this exact layout is key. Apple solves this simply by having only 2 ‘experiences’ to design for on a single platform.

    I’m excited about seeing a dominant single player in the android space (possibly the kindle). 

    As a developer, I don’t want open nor do I want the unlimited open nature of the web where you have to build websites with backwards compatibility back to IE6 or for oddly produced browsers that have quirky compliance issues with an open standard (such as odd screen size issues adhering to android standards).

    I’d rather have clear, mass market, distribution platform where I can nail the experience, design, and test it and ensure it gets to my customers the way I want it. 

    At the moment it’s Apple. 

    For android to become significant they have to consolidate this mess of offerings in their landscape.

    HP is delusional with their PalmOS claims from last week and microsoft (outside of x-box) still carries many negative emotions when it comes to developers , especially web developers as their continuous failure at producing reliable or up to date on the latest CSS / transitions …etc features has pained us for a decade. 

    As a developer my short term money is split between Apple & Kindle. Long term, I’d like the market to consolidate already. 

  • Raja

    “..Launch a closed iPhone ecosystem?  Watch the market rally around Android..” there is a correlation-causation trap here. “market” didn’t rally around Android. OEMs did, because they couldn’t build a mobile OS that can deliver a reasonable smart phone experience quick enough to compete with Apple.