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.
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.