Thursday, June 16, 2011

The (second) rise and fall of walled gardens

Those of us who have been around for long enough remember the era of proprietary online services. In the U.S., the leaders were America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy and GEnie. Canada and several European countries had teletext services. All of these services were what came to be known as "walled gardens": Each service had its own collection of content, its own email service, and its own client software. Subscribers could use the content and services from one vendor, but couldn't get to the content or services from other vendors without subscriptions to their services. You could easily send email and messages to subscribers of the same service, but it was very difficult to send email from one service to another. Content providers had to use the publishing tools provided by each online services, and needed contracts with each service to reach their subscribers.

The Internet, and in particular the web, changed all that. Anyone with a web server on the public Internet could reach anyone with a web browser. Thanks to HTML and HTTP, browsers, servers and authoring tools were standardized, so that proprietary software and tools weren't needed. It only took a few years for the open Internet to displace the proprietary online services. Of the four U.S. leaders, only America Online survives, with web-based services and content. CompuServe is now a brand name of America Online, GEnie closed down at the end of 1999, and Prodigy closed down in 2001.

We're now living in the second era of walled gardens, thanks to smartphones. Apple's iOS, Google's Android, RIM's BlackBerry, Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 and HP's WebOS all support web content, but they have their own proprietary standards for apps, their own app stores, and their own rules for which apps will or won't be allowed to run on their devices. Apps written for one platform won't work on a different platform without recompiling and significant recoding.

As with the proprietary online services, the web (especially the combination of HTML5, CSS and JavaScript) may lead us out of the walled garden era of mobile operating systems. PBS's MediaShift recently published an excellent video interview with Tom Peeters, the multimedia manager for Mediafin, the Belgian-based publisher of newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo.

Mediafin has been working on an HTML5 version of its newspapers for the iPad for some time, even though it already has native iOS apps in the App Store. The Financial Times' decision to release an excellent HTML5-based web app for iOS, and to commit to eventually replace its existing iOS app with a web app, is bringing a lot of other publishers with similar plans (especially European publishers) out of the woodwork. The FT's actions are also serving as an existence proof--publishers can deliver usable web apps with a high degree of interactivity without going through Apple. FT's decision also gives momentum to HTML5 publishing toolkits from companies such as OnSwipe and pugpig.

One point that you'll hear in the interview is that there's a definite marketing advantage to being in the App Store, but if you already have a way of reaching customers directly, as Mediafin does with its newspapers, you can gain much more control over the development process and save the 30% commission (closer to 40% for Mediafin, due to VAT) that would go to Apple.

It may be wishful thinking, but ten years from now, I expect that we'll look back at today's mobile walled gardens and wonder how they ever existed.

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