Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research has written a must-read post on the splintering of the Web, saying that the golden days of the standardized, open-source Web are over. He says we should prepare ourselves for a world in which platforms function well enough within their ecosystems, but are deaf to the rest of the universe around them.
Mobile devices and online networks are the most obvious examples. iPhone apps don’t work on a Blackberry, and vice versa. Facebook apps only work on Facebook. LinkedIn exists by itself in a corner of the world. Their citizens seem quite happy with this state of affairs.
I say it’s bad news, and Apple shares a large part of the blame.
From its beginnings, Apple has refused to play the open source game. It almost died in the 1990s when its closed-end desktop system nearly became irrelevant (except to graphic designers and school systems), but it saved itself by introducing a game-changing, closed-source music ecosystem, then by launching its closed-source, category-killing smartphone. See a pattern?
The irony is that Apple fan boys, who used to demonize Microsoft for its all-Windows-all-the-time dreams of world domination, look the other way when Apple rips pages from the same playbook. Apple will play with you, but only on its terms. Arrogance, anyone? (The same applies to RIM, Facebook and all the rest.)
But Apple’s shareholder value is through the roof, so others are emulating it. Those of us in marketing and communications must now develop on dozens of platforms, each mute to its neighbor, just to engage a critical mass of our markets or communities. Apple didn’t invent this trend, but the turtle-neck wearing guy from Cupertino made it not only acceptable, but admirable.
This is a betrayal of the ideals that made the Web such a revolutionary force – connectivity and community. Instead, these new platforms behave like toddlers on a play date – engaged in their own activities, unaware of the kid next to them. You can’t blame toddlers; their minds haven’t developed enough. Parallel play is all they can do. But these technology companies know better.
You might argue that this development is only the next stage in the 40-year-old fragmentation of communication platforms, but it’s worse than that. It’s a huge step backward for the information economy, isolating people from information and each other, and foisting exorbitant new development costs on to business. These rising costs can only exert a downward pressure on economic growth and prosperity. (Please: Don’t even try to sell me on the idea that the iPhone’s elegance is an excuse for this betrayal.)
Bernoff says it’s too late; that we can’t ask for a return of the standardized, interoperable web. I’m not willing to give up yet. If closed-source efforts at world domination were bad coming from Redmond, why are they so virtuous coming from Cupertino?