The Web Is Dead? It's Open vs. Closed

Updates in bold.

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The Web is not dead and Chris Anderson knows it, though as editor of Wired, he can't claim that someone else chose the headline on his piece The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet. I say he knows it, because he knows at the very least that it's via the Web that people access the apps he mentions that are growing in popularity (Netflix streaming, iTunes, Facebook, etc.), at least to get the app, if not operate it every time. And in a later debate with John Battelle and Tim O'Reilly he clarifies that the piece is about the Web as a business application, not in general -- business is moving to apps and platforms, but not all users or content creators.

He also must know, as is pointed out on BoingBoing, that bandwidth, alone, can be a poor measure of value. In fact, many of the most valuable and often longest-lived applications take the least bandwidth proportional to their utility -- that's part of their value. Email, Twitter, audio, IM. In fact, the utility of an application improves if the bandwidth it requires comes down over time as it becomes more efficient.

Battelle is right that it's wrong to say of the Web and apps that "one kills the other," but in a broader sense than he posits. The battle comes in the context of the larger one that has been, and will be, going on for years, perhaps decades to come: Open vs. Closed systems. The benefits of control vs. scale.

There's room for both, and both are growing.

Everywhere I go these days, I see traditional publishers excited about their ability to control the environments in which their content appears and charge for that content. Most recently I saw that excitement from Hearst and National Geographic at the DigiDay Apps conference Monday in New York (Tweets here).

It may be that magazine publishers have the understanding and mindset of how to offer, and make a profit from, their content on controlled platforms and devices like the iPad. They, after all, made money for decades with niche content provided to niche audiences interested in anything from food to fishing, fitness to foreign policy. And in the new environment, they won't have to bear the costs of printing, paper, postage and distribution.

Yet, the new environment provides new challenges. There is no standard magazine size that will fit on all newsstands, no way to produce something once and have everyone be able to buy or subscribe. The magazines, like anyone pushing their content through an app, will have to provide it multiple times to reach niches within niches. Those interested in a particular type of fashion may or may not have iPhones, iPads, Kindles, Blackberrys, Androids or other tablets or devices. How small can the universe be before a profit will be made? It can cost tens, or hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop for every different platform, and the platforms require constant change and update. Not that it's as high a cost as printing and distribution, but it is a cost, and a real cost that's not borne on the open Web.

A core challenge to those who wall content off will continue to be what it is today and what it was before the app and platform world exploded a few years ago: Those who do provide content that appeals to a niche audience can find that niche further diced into sub-niches and picked off by those who can outdo them because there are so few barriers to entry. Want to do a smartphone publication? Well, someone concentrate on the iPhone and do a blog on just that. And, presumably, if that blog gets an audience, some of the ad dollars that would have accrued to the larger Smartphone publication go to the sub-niche. This holds true into all the niches I named above and many many more. Why will someone pay for an app that gives them a publication about food, in general, if what they're really interested in is Asian cuisine, and there's a blog that covers it just as well or even better than the general interest publication?

The Open Web Supports the Closed, And Vice Versa

The open Web also can't die because it is interfacing with the closed in new and creative ways, as well. Facebook has come out of its shell with Facebook Connect, Open Graph, new "like" and "activity" feed buttons that all can be placed on Websites and make them interlace better with Facebook (and other social apps, in some cases). The platform is often the biggest driver of traffic to any given blog post or Web page these days, and Facebook's new media page is cultivating outreach to publishers.

At the DigiDay Apps conference, a new company called AppMobi said they were providing a way for anyone with decent Web developer skills to use Javascript to write an app that AppMobi would translate to the various popular app platforms. No need to learn Objective C or other iPhone intricacies, or Blackberry or Android or any of the others. That's an example of someone using the open Web toward proprietary platforms the way it's been used in other walled instances: breaking down barriers to entry, lowering costs, and increasing access.

We are in a constant tug between free and paid, open and not. The battle will go on, with 800-lb gorillas on either side of the equation. Maybe if the niche you want to reach is a very specific group that has similar habits of consumption and provides a high enough return -- say Wall Street Stock brokers -- that you can develop just for certain popular smartphone apps, charge for your content, and get away with it.

The communication theorist Ev Rogers, whom I was lucky enough to study with at Stanford, taught how new communication inventions inevitably flow first to the monied, then to the masses, over time. If he's right, and his lesson applies today, society becomes the loser as the freshest and best technology goes behind app-laden and other walls that seal off access to the less-resourced. Let's hope libraries, at least, are able to level that playing field and provide those without the financial means, but who do have the drive and interest, to get the best of what's out there.

Publishers Should Hedge Their Bets

Meanwhile, the battle will rage, and I don't see either side winning just yet. I would suggest publishers large and small hedge their bets -- provide content in various ways to reach their target audiences. It's a fallacy to think, by the way, that "open" means unpaid. I sometimes buy the digital version of books from O'Reilly's company specifically because I can access them so many different ways -- computer, iPod, Blackberry and more. I'm very glad the Kindle has followed suit and wish it would make it easier to get content I haven't bought from Amazon. There are kinds of openness that come after the wall has been leapt. Whether the Web is the instrument may be immaterial, but the open ethos makes a difference.

Yes, Chris, "idealism is giving way to pragmatism," just as the idealism of the 1960s has given way to the pragmatism of now; yet, that 60s idealism infuses today's pragmatism with corporations promising social and community responsibility and even top MBAs choosing where to work based on the values of a company, not just its bottom line. I believe that the idealism of the open Web, while fought against in some quarters, will continue to infuse much of the media that's produced, and by virtue of its production and consumption, tug other more closed models into levels of openness they may have previously rejected. Even Apple, I would note, opened recent versions of its operating systems to others' applications in ways it resisted just a few years ago.

More links:
What's Wrong With 'X Is Dead' The Atlantic (Anderson likes this rebuttal)

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