Tim O’Reilly on the future web wars

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I’ve tended to limit my link referrals to my Twitter feed over the last year, but I wanted to advertise Tim O’Reilly’s latest post on this channel as well (it also feels great to have more than 100 characters to express myself!).  Tim explains well what the new battlegrounds for the future of the web are.  It’s a war that’s currently being fought with shiny discounted hardware, free access to proprietary data, and competing “privileged” interfaces to the web.  The stakes are huge, but oh-so-hard for people to grasp, as much of the mechanics of who wins what depend on economics which are far removed from the battleground:

  • People don’t pay transparently for mobile services or devices
  • People don’t pay for online news (although some surveys indicate many would)
  • People often end up “subscribing” to brands (Apple, Google, Facebook) and becoming brand consumers rather than active participants in their own digital life.  That delegation of trust is often pragmatic, but it’s worrisome if unchecked by alternatives.
  • The heterogeneity of the original internet can lead to an appearance of chaos, and many people prefer simpler, more uniform experiences.  Both technical and psychological factors encourage centralization of services with single providers.  Financially as well, “small, independent startups” have huge incentives to become part of one of the big centers of mass.

Finally, the huge psychological distance between the value of free services and the costs that funds them is one of the big topics that puzzle.  It applies to “how come I can get free map directions from Google but I have to pay to get them from TomTom?” as well as “how can I convince my neighbors that electing so-and-so to office will mean more tax revenue overall, which in turn will mean better schools?”.  In both cases, the number of steps between cost and service is huge, and coupling them tighter would destroy the huge advantages that centralization and scale offer.  (If I knew more about the derivatives crash I could make some pithy reference here).

I agree with Tim that “If you don’t want a repeat of the PC era, place your bets now on open systems. Don’t wait till it’s too late.”  I think he’d also agree that we need to think beyond code and copyright.  That’s like going to war with trucks but no tanks.  For the open, distributed, heterogeneous web to thrive, we need to incorporate thinking from a host of other fields, such as contract law, design, psychology, consumer behavior, brand marketing, and more.  Figuring out how to engage thinkers and leaders in those fields is likely one of the critical, still missing steps.

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