Am I reading these trends right?

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Let’s see… in the last few weeks, we have seen:

Facebook shifting the definition of the Open Graph and moving the locus of control about sharing from an actual user-initiated action (“share!”) to the terms of service that users agree to at “app installation time”. This will likely lead users to overshare, and many more websites to require facebook accounts.

Amazon building a new way of using the web which many fear will be a data mining engine that “acts on your behalf” as you do anything on the web, not just with Amazon sites. Until now, only regulated ISPs or government agencies had that level of access to our online activities.

Microsoft preparing a version of Windows which will demote third-party browsers and bake in support for a single-vendor appstore.

Google aggressively promoting their mostly closed social network on all of its properties.

(All of whom are basically following Apple’s lead on how to verticalize the world).

The threat models are fascinating too. According to the blogosphere, Facebook is feeling threatened by users shifting to mobile (read: iPhone); Google’s threatened by Facebook; Apple needs to figure out social; Everyone’s going to get bit by patents, but they all have huge cash reserves to apply to that problem.

This industry is heading in a direction that is sure to be full of fireworks, but I’m having a hard time seeing how normal people end up winning at the end.

If these trends continue, in a few years at most we’ll basically choose one of 3 or 4 vertical stacks to work in. Rich people will be able to afford to play in all of them (an iOS macphone, an android tablet, a kindle Plasma, a facebook TV, etc.).

Consumption will go up, free access will be contingent on actual consumption. Kindle people will have a heck of a time communicating with Apple people. Facebookers will make fun of Googlers. App developers will slowly realize that they’re the outsourced R&D department for the big 5, and success will be defined as being acquired for a few bucks rather than creating jobs or making the world a better place.

Consumers are part of the problem too, of course — we like simple, shiny, integrated solutions. We want freedom from choice more than we actually value choice.

The next generation will likely think of our notions of privacy, autonomy, and various freedoms as quaint or foolish, much like we look on our parents’ notions of decorum and modesty. Either that, or they’ll unplug and start to riot, because of the co-occuring global economic climate which, to put it bluntly, will suck for people who don’t have stock in said 5 companies.

So, that’s a pretty bleak assessment, and it tends to depress me. What’s the silver lining? I don’t have a very rosy picture yet, although I’m trying! I have a few proto-thoughts:

First, those five companies, while very impressive and influential, represent a tiny fraction of the creative, intellectual and even financial resources of the world. Furthermore, those companies are all US-based, which simply isn’t a stable configuration. So while those companies are defining extremely aggressive winner-take-all strategies, and executing for the most part exceedingly well, we should realize that there are way more of “us” than “them”.

Second, these companies all have competitors, and I expect always will. Even if there were no other market forces at play, these five will keep beating each other up forever. Mergers of giants might even be a good thing, given that those tend to destroy focus and operational excellence.

Third, I think that there is a growing shared understanding of what’s wrong with these trends from a public policy point of view. The internet, the web, were not intended to facilitate these empires, and I expect that over time, as John Gilmore said, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” So somehow, we’ll figure out a way to take the bits of net life that truly matter, and extract those from the silos being built.

There are many projects in this general vein already under way, some with significant involvement from Mozilla. For example, we’re pushing hard on federating identity on the web, and teaching the web about apps and vice versa. I’m hopeful that we’ll also find ways to recognize friends and partners along the way. I’ve got a list in my head, but it’s probably worth building it out. If you have pointers to projects that touch on these issues, let me know in comments.

7 thoughts on “Am I reading these trends right?

  1. In the early days, it was more or less just Microsoft that posed a threat to the Internet, especially a free and open one, and Mozilla was the only one to truly and successfully take them on, but with so many big players nowadays (those big 5), do you think that Mozilla and like minded people have any chance and combating the new threats or even providing some sort of balance?

    You were spot on about younger users. It’s already happening that they have no clue, or just may not care about privacy and/or data rights.
    For them, it may be a very unfortunate live and learn experience.

  2. It’s great to see Mozilla moving more and more into web services. The web desperately needs (more) *federated* alternatives to the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Google+ (if it’s not going to federate in the near future) and it does feel like it is the right time for Mozilla with projects like Drumbeat / WebFWD to start building out these *federated* social web services and using them for all of our social activities.

    // Paul Booker

  3. What is the big 5 are perceived as “magazines”. That is, if you look at what the big 5 are doing it is little more than gaining an audience by offering remarkable content. When you buy a magazine you don’t think about the conveyance, that is the staples or glue bound, high-resolution images on paper. The same will happen with tablets. You pickup the “Vogue tablet” to read its curated content. I am sure there will be national and international standards around the conveyance as these “magazines” accumulate just as there is an international standard for shower-curtain rings.

  4. Jono

    David, I’m getting the same feeling lately. The internet: it was fun while it lasted.

    If you’re not depressed enough already, you can read this: http://adrianshort.co.uk/2011/09/25/its-the-end-of-the-web-as-we-know-it/

    and of course watch this: http://www.thefilterbubble.com/ted-talk

    The dream that the internet could democratize information by letting anyone have a broadcast channel is dying.

    Our corporate overlords couldn’t allow that to go on for too long. Every communication channel must eventually be co-opted and restricted to advertiser-supported pablum.

    Maybe it will be good for my mental health to give up on using the internet. I’ve just got to decide what to do with the rest of my life, since the software industry is turning into a place I don’t want to work anymore.

    Maybe I should go back to school for science or medicine or something. Maybe I’ll write books. Maybe I’ll become a teacher or a musician.

  5. jenzed

    I think those big stacks will defeat themselves because they’re a flawed model. People will get frustrated with having to move between stacks, or with being denied access to innovation that occurs on a stack other than their own. Big privacy and security debacles are inevitable given the amount of data that will be concentrated in the stacks (for the benefit of the stack owners rather than the stack members).

    While all this is happening, I think the open web will continue to truck along. It won’t be as shiny or gee-whiz as the stacks, it won’t be as widely adopted, it will probably be widely misunderstood. But people will gradually see its value. Early adopters will spread the word. Young people will start to care, because the pendulum of fashion is bound to swing – it always does.

    I don’t think this iteration of the web is much different from earlier iterations of the web. A few people want to own the web; it is an immensely valuable property. But many many more people will gradually realize that concentrated ownership of the web only benefits the owners.

  6. @Andrew Gilmartin: I think that without Mozilla’s “Do Not Track” initiative there would have been little incentive for the “big 5″ to even consider allowing individual users to opt out. When I compare Google’s view of the future with Mozilla’s, it’s easy to see which is motivated by commercial considerations.

    Your shower-curtain rings don’t report back to the manufacturer every time you take a shower, and there are no reassuring precedents about large for-profit corporations putting user privacy before profits, no matter how much they declare that they wish to do no evil”.

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