The web is getting very complicated and messy – like the real world

I read two posts today that left me with the same thought – that the simple days of a free and open web are slowly coming to an end.  In the world we are moving towards individual corporations will have a significant element of control over parts of the web and therefore significant influence over which companies will prosper on their networks, including which startups.

In many ways this is analogous to how most other areas of business work.  If you have a software startup buddying up with an IBM, VMWare, SAP, or smaller vertical industry focused partner is often the best route to market.  Similarly for chip companies working with a company like Cisco or Apple can transform your fortunes.  In most mature industries large companies exist that have large numbers of customer relationships and they can choose to make them available to partners, or choose not to.

One of the charming things about the web is that historically at least it has mostly operated a little differently to that.  Sure partnership deals have helped many a startup, but it has always been possible to grow very fast independently – Facebook, Twitter and more recently Foursquare have all gotten to where they gotten to under their own steam.

But that is now changing. 

The first post I’m referring to was Brad Burnham’s Web Services as Governments on the Union Square Ventures blog.  Brad’s point is that Apple, Facebook and Twitter are kind of like nation states – they have citizens and rules of engagement which dictate which behaviours are allowed.  Crucially, they are not democracies, but rather self-interested dictatorships.  Announcements from these companies over the last month or two and the furore that followed them (including some from me) show just how powerful and important these companies are becoming.  In case you missed them the announcements were Apple’s new terms of service for the iPhone OS 4, that restricted how applications developers could use analytics data, Facebook’s launch of Facebook Credits, new privacy policy, and Twitter’s Blackberry and iPhone applications and plans for its own URL shortener.

Already partnerships with these companies confer a big advantage to startups and I’m starting to see a day when if you don’t have such a partnership people will question your prospects.

The second post was DeWitt Clinton’s Thoughts on URL Shorteners. His point is that they put friction and new points of failure into the web and give the link shortening company control and information they wouldn’t otherwise have.  To me this is the same development as above, but at a micro scale.  If software companies partnering with IBM is equivalent to Apple’s control over its ecosystem then link shorteners are like dealing with retailers, software re-sellers and logistics companies.  They are an important part of doing business and if you don’t get it right you won’t succeed, but they are messy to deal with and take up a lot of time.

I guess this is just the web maturing as a place to do business, but it is a little sad.

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