I spent a good part of the weekend reading up on Chris “Long Tail” Anderson‘s obituary for openness, Wired Magazine’s The Web is Dead. The article and its sidebars are a pretty dense read, but well worth it. Once again Anderson has done what he does best. He’s garnered a lot of attention making an apparently shocking claim that’s really not that shocking at all. “The Web is Dead” is a far better attention grabber than his actual thesis that Web browsers just plain suck on mobile devices.
Specialized devices, with hardware limits (screen size, lack of mouse/keyboard, etc) require specialized apps. They also tend to come with billing relationships built-in, so this is an opportunity to reset assumptions about what consumers will or will not pay for. No surprise that content producers are flocking to apps, a greenfield opportunity to find a more sustainable model for digital content.
The above is an Anderson quote from what I found to be the most interesting part of the multi-article feature, the robust debate among Anderson, Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle. It sums up the two key issues quite nicely. The browser-based Internet is challenged by the poor usability of the browser interface on mobile devices, and large content providers have failed to develop a sustainable business model for delivering high quality content over the Web.
Anderson believes the open Web is in peril because media giants like his magazine’s publisher have been losing money on it. Citing the railroads, telcos, and electric utilities of the 19th and 20th centuries as examples, standardization and lower barriers to entry eventually lead to massive consolidation because no one makes money in hyper-competitive environments. These markets (like most) evolve towards oligopoly. Anderson also points out that apps on mobile phones solve a lot of business problems — the networks are closed and provide gatekeepers, customers are used to paying for content on closed networks, and the billing mechanisms are in place to make small payments feasible.
Though touched on at times, the Wired articles fail to pay enough attention to Google’s role in this world. For the most part, Anderson and his colleagues relegate Google to Web company status. And that is a significant flaw in their hypotheses. Google is a mobile player. It might not own the networks, but it controls the fastest growing mobile platform in Android. Google’s more laissez faire approach to app developers promises a more open mobile world. Customers will demand Android remains open. (The various authors also pay scant attention to HTML 5’s potential.)
Whatever flaws exist in Anderson’s argument do not detract from the value of his main point. The threat to the open Web is less about net neutrality than big media consolidation. Furthermore, Steve Lohr carried the banner of evolution over revolution quite well yesterday’s New York Times piece, Now Playing: Night of the Living Tech.
Yet evolution — not extinction — has always been the primary rule of media ecology. New media predators rise up, but other media species typically adapt rather than perish. That is the message of both history and leading media theorists, like Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman. Television, for example, was seen as a threat to radio and movies, though both evolved and survived.
The open Web will survive. Advertising will survive. Apps might just be the fad – if an HTML 5 site on an Android device can deliver the app experience without the middleman, meet the new Web, same as the old Web.