All of our gardens have walls now

There was a post on Techcrunch over the weekend titled The walled garden has won.  Regular readers will know I’m a big proponent of open systems and hence I read this piece with interest.  Regrettably I think the title is accurate, although I don’t think the news is all bad.

Let me explain.

Firstly the concept of a walled garden has mostly been applied to the web offerings of AOL and mobile operators which gave consumers access to only a limited portion of the web.  Carefully curated, but limited.  That sort of walled garden has emphatically lost. 

What we have instead is a more subtle form of control – rather than the sites we can visit the control is over our identity, over updates of the software on our devices and over the services we can use.  The Techcrunch article points out the following:

  • every phone has a unique ID that is regularly uploaded to the servers of our app providers
  • Amazon can arbitrarily delete books from our Kindles
  • consumers don’t take responsibility for managing their own security on smartphones which means the control necessary to do so has passed to Google, Apple and mobile carriers

Not mentioned in the article is the fact that the most open of mobile OS’s Android comes with a cast iron requirement to use Google Maps and Google Search.  Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that you can only run Apple approved software on your iPad and iPhone.

Last summer I wrote a couple of blog posts about how the web ecosystem is maturing and getting more complicated making it harder for startups to grow to scale without working in partnership with companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple.  I think that is doubly true on mobile where not only is it hard to scale without partnerships a startup remains dependent on its partners for continued prosperity even after it has hit scale.

In many ways I would prefer it if the web and mobile web were as open and free as they used to be, largely because that made it easier for startups, but as I wrote above the news that the ecosystem is to an extent controlled by the large players isn’t all bad.  With the control comes and ease of use which has massively accelerated usage growth, particularly on the mobile web.

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