Let's grab the Web by the long tail
Updated: 2012-03-21 07:58
By Esther Dyson (China Daily)
Within the tech community, there is much angst about whether the Web is about to be "closed" - controlled by companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google - or if it will remain "open" to all?
Fifteen years ago, in the United States at least, it was America Online - now AOL - that was closing the Internet. Today, AOL's purported control of the Internet looks like a joke, but it was considered a real threat at the time, as millions of people were relying on it for Internet service and content.
The threats nowadays come from both new companies and new models. Facebook is getting a lot of press, owing to its omnipresence and its pending stock offering. But increasingly, Facebook encourages people to stay on Facebook to play games on Zynga and shop through Facebook commerce pages. Will Facebook control who gets to talk to us?
Likewise, Apple not only sells hardware; it controls, through its AppStore, what applications we can use on our iPads and iPhones. Google, for its part, is filtering our search results, both by focusing our attention on what also interests our friends, and by excluding Twitter and Facebook results from what we see - mostly because Google cannot agree with Facebook and Twitter on whether Google should pay them or they should pay Google.
Beyond these big players, smaller startups are increasingly focusing on apps - applications that capture a user and keep him or her safe from the open Web. These apps are typically cleared and registered by the big players. For many people, Apple's App Store is a benefit, because they believe it ensures the quality and security of the apps. Various app stores perform the same function for Android phones, but with fewer restrictions and less security.
In short, you can choose from a long spectrum, with more security at one end and more freedom at the other. Fortunately, whether the Web is open or closed is not a matter to be settled once and for all, but rather a fluctuating situation, even if the Web takes on some other name.
The great thing about Internet companies is that they cannot outlaw competition, and, though they can engage in anti-competitive practices and filter content for their users, eventually consumers and startups fight back.
In a world where Facebook can go from dorm-room project to $100 billion IPO in seven years, it may seem careless to suggest that we can just wait for a backlash to come if one is necessary. But I think we can.
Of course, we can also be part of the backlash. In fact, paranoid micro-bloggers and self-styled consumer advocates are all part of the workings of the broader market, which includes not just companies and activists, but also pundits and politicians, each with proposals to address perceived dangers.
Don't get me wrong: collective action in the form of government interference will sometimes be necessary. The problem is that we are as likely to get bad measures - like the recently abandoned US attempt to enact anti-piracy laws that would have fostered wholesale Web site closures - as we are to get a freer Internet.
We are now moving from open data to a closed online world of Facebook and apps. Use of the Domain Name System (the address bar) will likely diminish, owing not only to apps, but also to a tragedy of the commons in which new Top-Level Domain names (.whatevers and .brands) confuse users and lead them to rely on the search box or links within apps instead.
I believe that not only do we have choices, we have many, and it is up to us to select from them. I despise many people's choices, but I prefer the world of the so-called long tail. By contrast, the short, fat front - where content is homogenized and individuals get either one central broadcast or something so tailored for them that they never learn anything new or encounter a disagreeable idea - is always more popular. But then, just when it seems no alternative is possible, some fearless entrepreneur comes along with something outrageous that, 10 years later, dominates everything.
The author is an entrepreneur focusing on emerging digital technologies. Project Syndicate
(China Daily 03/21/2012 page8)