Whither the open web

I’ve written a few posts now about the rise of new gatekeepers to the web – Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and how that changes the dynamics of innovation to the advantage of those companies and against the interests of both consumers and startups.

I the last couple of days Anil Dash and Alan Patrick have written in more detail about the changes that have happened:

  • photos have moved from Flickr where they were well tagged and easily accessed by third party services with clear commercial arrangements to Facebook and Instagram (now the same company) where metadata is poor and access requires a bespoke partnership agreement
  • identity is now owned by companies (Facebook, Google, Apple) whereas we used to think we would have our own websites and/or fully portable identities
  • you used to be able to link to almost anything, nowadays mobile apps and closed social networks make that impossible for large parts of the web

Dash argues that we have lost respect for the web itself, and don’t give it the care it deserves as a medium and which will enable it to succeed. He also says that Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn are great sites, but are making mistakes in the pursuit of short term growth and profitability (which explains why they, and other entrepreneurs are not respecting the web as a medium). At heart he thinks they would be more sustainable and profitable as networks if they gave users more control and flexibility over how they used the services, even if that came at the expense of a more complicated user experience (and presumably slower growth).

Both Dash and Patrick are confident that open web standards will prevail in the end. In Dash’s case I think it’s because it is in the best interests of consumers and hence ultimately the companies that build the services they use. In Patrick’s case it is because he sees social media and smart phones as going through the same cycle that the PC industry went through, and many industries before – from small geeky open groups, through a closed standards phase (dominated by IBM) to an open standards phase (dominated by Windows and Intel).

I hope they are both right, but I don’t think it is possible to be sure at this stage. It could be that the pace of change is so fast these days that markets never slow down enough to mature into a horizontally stratified phase where open standards dominate, and it could well be that our four would be monopolists evolve to offer such great end to end services in content, services, and hardware that the consumer push for open standards never really gets momentum. Sitting here today I see both futures as very plausible.