In The Master Switch, Tim Wu wrote about the information industries’ predictable oscillation between open and closed behavior. The oscillations have recently become more frequent and more violent. Today we’re facing a preponderance of powerful closing forces.
As recently as the 1990s Linux and GNU pried open the operating system markets formerly dominated by closed companies like Microsoft and Sun. That opening enabled a flood of innovation in the Dot Com boom at the turn of the millennium and gave rise to Google, Amazon, and Red Hat. Together Linux and GNU formed a complete implementation of not only the standards composing UNIX, but also the network protocols documented in RFCs. By the nature of their open design review process, the protocols of the time were open and federated. Anyone with an Internet connection could become a provider of a common set of services including email, file transfer, hypertext, and chat. Email became the dominant two way communication medium, and hypertext — the World Wide Web, HTML over HTTP — dominated one way publishing.
After the Dot Com boom turned to bust, the next wave of innovators strove to make the web a two way communication channel. Web 2.0 brought richer user interfaces and allowed the masses to publish their ideas on the web using the web itself rather than the more arcane underlying technology. User generated content also brought the seeds of closing.
With the rise of web apps and web services, web user interfaces became rich enough and responsive enough to disrupt native desktop applications. Users welcomed the web’s unparalleled access to information, free price, and lack of installation pain. They accepted interfaces that weren’t as rich as their familiar desktop programs, but were at least good enough. Users also unwittingly ceded control of their personal information and freedom. In using the new innovators’ free products, users allowed their personal information to become the product. As desktop software vendors gave way to web application service providers, the brief era of opening ended and ushered in a new era of closing.
The open web as a user interface is withering at the hands of closed mobile apps. Mobile app usage is growing much faster than desktop web usage. In the developing world, many people are using mobile devices as their first and only connection to the Internet.
The web disrupted desktop software despite interfaces that weren’t as rich because it provided value on different axes that users ultimately found more compelling. Mobile apps are doing the same to the desktop web, and they are simultaneously stifling the mobile optimized web. The axes of value have changed again. In the desktop-to-web transition, users valued low cost, zero installation, and breadth of content over richer and faster user experiences. In the web-to-mobile transition, Apple’s native app distribution makes cost and installation good enough for users, and users value richer and more responsive user experiences over openness.
The web is open by nature. Mobile can only be opened with nurture. Why? Links.
The URL is fundamental to building anything on the web. In a mobile app, it’s an afterthought. You have to go out of your way to provide deep linking into your mobile app. On the web, you have to go out of your way to prevent it. Defaults matter, and the web is open by default. The tools for building mobile apps force developers to take extra steps to make their apps’ views universally addressable. By default, mobile apps are closed.
The Next Open Era
With few opening counterbalancing forces, we’re facing a void of open federated services, protocols, and APIs. Instead we’re directing our collective innovation energy to siloed user interfaces and proprietary APIs, each operated by a single provider exercising centralized control. Each provider is an organizational single point of failure. Moving your files and directories from a Windows PC to a Mac is relatively easy. Imagine the switching costs of moving your photos, videos, and status updates from Facebook to Google+.
If Tim Wu is right, a new opening era is inevitable. The only questions are when it will come and what will drive it. What do you think will trigger the next open era in the information industry?