The War For the Web

On Friday, my latest tweet was automatically posted to my Facebook news feed, as always. But this time, Tom Scoville noticed a difference: the link in the posting was no longer active.

It turns out that a lot of other people had noticed this too. Mashable wrote about the problem on Saturday morning: Facebook Unlinks Your Twitter Links.

if you’re posting web links (, TinyURL) to your Twitter feed and using the Twitter Facebook app to share those updates on Facebook too, none of those links are hyperlinked. Your friends will need to copy and paste the links into a browser to make them work.

If this is a design decision on Facebook’s part, it’s an extremely odd one: we’d like to think it’s an inconvenient bug, and we have a mail in to Facebook to check. Suffice to say, the issue is site-wide: it’s not just you.

As it turns out, it wasn’t just links imported from Twitter. All outbound links were temporarily disabled, unless users explicitly added them as links via an “attach” dialogue. I went to Facebook, and tried posting a link to this blog directly in my status feed, and saw the same behavior: links were no longer automatically made clickable. You can see that in the image that is the destination of the first link in this piece.

The problem was quickly fixed, with URLs in status updates automatically now linkified again. The consensus was that it was in fact a bug, but it’s little surprise that people suspected otherwise, given the increasing amount of effort Facebook puts into warning people that they are leaving Facebook for the big bad unsafe Internet:


All of this is well-intentioned, I’m sure. After all, Facebook is attempting to put in place privacy controls that allow its users to manage the visibility of their information — and the Web’s expectation of universal visibility is not necessarily the best default for much of the information posted on Facebook. But let’s not kid ourselves: Facebook is a new kind of web site (or an old kind redux), a world of its own, playing by different rules.

But this isn’t just about Facebook.

The Apple iPhone is the hottest web access device around, and like Facebook, while it connects to the web, it plays by a different set of rules. Anyone can put up a website, or launch a new Windows or Mac OS X or Linux application, without anyone’s permission. But put an app onto the iPhone? That requires Apple’s blessing.

There is one glaring loophole: anyone can create a web application, which any user can save as clickable application on their phone. But these web applications have limits – there are key capabilities of the phone that are not accessible to web applications. HTML 5 can introduce all the new application-like features it wants, but they will work only for web applications, and can’t access key aspects of the phone with Apple’s permission. And as we saw earlier this year with Apple’s rejection of the Google Voice application, Apple isn’t shy about blocking applications that it considers threatening to their core business, or that of their partners.

And now, of course, we see the latest salvo in the war against the accepted rules of interoperability on the web: Rupert Murdoch’s threat to take the Wall Street Journal out of the Google search index. While most people have repeated the existing wisdom that to do so would be suicide for the Journal, a few contrarian observers have noted the leverage Murdoch holds. Mark Cuban argues that Twitter now trumps search engines when it comes to breaking news. Even more provocatively, Jason Calacanis suggested, a few weeks before Murdoch’s announcement, that all big media companies need to do to cut Google off at the knees would be to block Google, while cutting an exclusive deal with Bing to be found only in Microsoft’s search index.

Of course, Google wouldn’t take that lying down, and would likely make its own exclusive deals, leading to a showdown that would make the browser wars of the 90s seem tame.

I’m not saying that News Corp and other mainstream media publications would adopt Jason’s suggested strategy, or that it would work if they did, but it is becoming clear to me that we are heading into a bloody period of competition that could be extremely unfriendly to the interoperable web as we know it today.

If you’ve followed my thinking about Web 2.0 from the beginning, you know that I believe we are engaged in a long term project to build an internet operating system. (Check out the program for the first O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in 2002 (pdf).) In my talks over the years, I’ve argued that there are two models of operating system, which I have characterized as “One Ring to Rule Them All” and “Small Pieces Loosely Joined,” with the latter represented by a routing map of the Internet.


The first is the winner-takes-all world that we saw with Microsoft Windows on the PC, a world that promises simplicity and ease of use, but ends up diminishing user and developer choice as the operating system provider.

The second is an operating system that works like the Internet itself, like the web, and like open source operating systems like Linux: a world that is admittedly less polished, less controlled, but one that is profoundly generative of new innovations because anyone can bring new ideas to the market without having to ask permission of anyone.

I’ve outlined a few of the ways that big players like Facebook, Apple, and News Corp are potentially breaking the “small pieces loosely joined” model of the Internet. But perhaps most threatening of all are the natural monopolies created by Web 2.0 network effects.

One of the points I’ve made repeatedly about Web 2.0 is that it is the design of systems that get better the more people use them, and that over time, such systems have a natural tendency towards monopoly.

And so we’ve grown used to a world with one dominant search engine, one dominant online encyclopedia, one dominant online retailer, one dominant auction site, one dominant online classified site, and we’ve been readying ourselves for one dominant social network.

But what happens when a company with one of these natural monopolies uses it to gain dominance in other, adjacent areas? I’ve been watching with a mixture of admiration and alarm as Google has taken their dominance in search and used it to take control of other, adjacent data-driven applications. I noted this first with speech recognition, but it’s had the biggest business impact so far in location-based services.

A few weeks ago, Google offered free turn-by-turn directions for Android phones. This is awesome news for consumers, who previously could get this only in dedicated GPS devices or with high-priced iPhone apps. But it’s also a sign just how competitive the web is getting, and just how powerful Google is getting, because they understand that “data is the Intel Inside” of the next generation of computer applications.

Nokia paid $8 billion for NavTeq, the leading provider of such turn-by-turn directions. GPS-maker TomTom paid $3.7 billion for TeleAtlas, the #2 provider in the market. Google quietly built an equivalent service, and is now giving it away for free — but only to their own business partners. Everyone else still has to pay high fees to NavTeq and TeleAtlas. What’s more, Google upped the ante by adding in such features as Street View.

Most interestingly, this move sets the stage for the future competition between Google and Apple. (Bill Gurley’s analysis is an essential read.) Apple controls access to the dominant device of the mobile web; Google controls access to one of the most important mobile applications, and so far, is making it available for free only on Android. Google’s prowess is not just in search, but in mapping, speech recognition, automated translation, and other applications driven by huge, intelligent databases that only a few providers can offer. Microsoft and Nokia control comparable assets, but they too are Apple competitors, and unlike Google, their business model depends on selling access to those assets, not giving them away for free.

It could be that everyone will figure out how to play nicely with each other, and we’ll see a continuation of the interoperable web model we’ve enjoyed for the past two decades. But I’m betting that things are going to get ugly. We’re heading into a war for control of the web. And in the end, it’s more than that, it’s a war against the web as an interoperable platform. Instead, we’re facing the prospect of Facebook as the platform, Apple as the platform, Google as the platform, Amazon as the platform, where big companies slug it out until one is king of the hill.

And it’s time for developers to take a stand. 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.

P.S. One prediction: Microsoft will emerge as a champion of the open web platform, supporting interoperable web services from many independent players, much as IBM emerged as the leading enterprise backer of Linux.

I’ll be speaking on this topic in my keynote at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York on Tuesday. I’ll look forward to seeing many of you there.

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  • TJ

    Tim, great stuff! You put into words something I have been trying to say for a long time. Thanks!

  • Shawn

    Great insight!!

  • df

    Agreed great insight. Bummer for peons like me, but I’m glad we have influential folks like yourself to make this issue known. I have been and continue to be concerned about Apple & Facebook. For whatever reason Google doesn’t bother me (chalk it up to cult of personality for a team of all-stars from the development world).

    Thanks Tim — I hope this is able to get enough attention to keep things interoperable. I’d be curious to learn more about your Microsoft prediction some time…

  • My humble opinion:

    Mobile Web (at least in the US) is still a “stepchild”, a dangling apparatus to the desktop Web, but globally more people are discovering the Web first through a mobile and may never own a desktop.

    Question: just as behemoths like and eBay and Amazon was created with the introduction of the (desktop) Web, will we see a company like that be built on top of the (primarily) mobile Web? I think the answer is yes.

    So where are we with the mobile Web? The iPhone Safari is not bad, it runs HTML5 sites “ok”. But I think it’s in Apple’s own interest that Safari doesn’t get _too_ good, lest it displaces their lucrative native app store economy.

    So how can we force device manufacturers to make better mobile Web browsers? Perhaps the answer will be by creating market pull. Imagine if Android showed us the best the mobile Web has to offer, and the user experience exceeds native iPhone apps. Soon everyone would be wondering why iPhone’s browser is not as developed, and gravitate away from Apple .. and Apple will be forced to catch up and give the market what the market wants.

    Tim, I’m very curious though as to why you think Microsoft would be the champion.

    Ballmer does have a point that mobile is like PC back in the day, lots of manufacturers, huge fragmentation problem – and Windows, software, prevailed. However, unless they have a secret weapon under wraps that they’re just holding back .. Microsoft has been the last I would think of.


    Jay Liew


  • This is why Google have made a big deal about Google Wave is it not? The protocol that underpins GW can effectively remove Facebook from the Social equation whilst giving data control back to the people who create the value for FB (I’m talking about running your own Wave server). Obviously that only happens if Wave services take off. The have competitors for all the other platforms you mention, but the social aspect has been a big hole in the armour until Google Wave.

  • Very interesting analysis and prediction. It seems a lot of finesse would be required to live up to the MSFT wins outcome, especially with so much Google and Apple open-ness.

    Tim, what do you think are the wise and defensible positions in the “data inside” power structure. Any recommendations for small businesses on where the gold lies?


  • Your arguments are all about how technology (the OS we run, where we store our data, and data format) can be used to limit choice. However, the very same companies you mention as possible monopolist are the ones who are providing the game changes technologies we enjoy. The FOSS space has failed to produce anything that main street wants to use. Linux, Android etc are all tech toys made by tech geeks for tech geeks. When FOSS can provide a compelling and EASY alternative, Apple, Google et al will continue to out pace FOSS.

  • Corporate feuds have been making the world go round for many years but lately there is a tech race between some of these giants and it will be interesting to see who will end up on top. I will say that Google’s recent free GPS on their new Android phone is a big step that will scare some of the competition.

  • When Fennec phones start shipping/arriving/nose-diving-in-price I doubt people will want an iPhone anymore … Apple knows this (and would follow suit)… they’re just taking advantage of being first-to-market.

  • Great article and summary of “how the Internet has evolved and will evolve in the future”. I think you make a good point on how worrying it is for one organisation to have so much control and dominance of the web. If we don’t continue to support open source the world will only know Google’s innovation, we should support open source and individual developer’s creativity to create the next “killer app”.

  • Tomasz

    Facebook as the SOCIAL platform
    Apple as the ENTERTAINMENT platform
    Google as the SEARCH/AD platform
    Amazon as the COMMERCE platform ?

    Who will be NEWS platform?

  • Will the forces of competition and capitalism prevent this single platform future? For example, will media publishers force a competition between Google and Bing/Microsoft in the search indexing arena?

  • One of your neighbors in Santa Rosa is fond of the phrase “loose coupling with cohesion”. Ron Barnett is a remarkable electrical engineer but has also created tensegrity chimes ( ). Tensegrity winds up being a great choice for chimes: it keeps the tubular bells from ever getting tangled.

    Grady Booch was the first to use that phrase in the tech world. I believe he used it in the 1e of “Object Oriented Analysis and Design” in the late 1970s, but I can’t find that edition. He was praising the benefits of oo programming at a time when the majority of the world was coding in assembler or C.

    I am presenting this week at Ignite Portland on the future of robotic movement: . I use a wordle where I talk about the qualities of the structure future robots; you can view the image at . In my presentation, we explore how that vocabulary can apply to human structure. They are real physical structures, but they clearly have an application to all sorts of more abstract structures — perhaps including the Internet.

    A bodyworker in the SF, Brian Esty, recently posted a tensegrity “torture” video: . He shows what happens to the springiness and resiliency of these structures if you destroy some of its tensile elements. I think this is an excellent structural example of what you’re describing that major forces can undermine the cohesion of the Internet.

    As you note in your Ignite presentation recently featured on the Ignite Show ( ), not all of us truly understand the abstractions of others. Your vision of “small pieces loosely joined” could be enhanced by models of these physical structures.

    Do you have any tensegrity models, Tim?

  • Thomas

    Khürt Williams’ comment above is important in this discussion. Google wins mapping because they made something massively better than what was there before: first, draggable maps in the browser; second, Street View. I mean Street View is *magic.* That’s just straight up wonder. Why didn’t NavTec or TeleAtlas do that?

    Apple’s iPhone is similarly magic. Why couldn’t Nokia pull that off? Can Android?

    Amazon’s “Fulfilled by Amazon” is also magic, in its way. You sell stuff? Store it in Amazon’s warehouse and take advantage of all of Amazon’s fulfilment operations. I mean S3 and EC2 are really cool, but that FBA program…that’s freaking magic if you’re a small business or manufacturer. Why couldn’t someone else pull that off?

    All of these things are technical innovations that lock customers into fiefdoms, yes, but these are giant “user experience” achievements. These companies thought of things no one was asking for, and for which there were almost no precedents, and delivered “user experiences” that are (largely) astonishing. Fake Steve Jobs jokes about the “childlike sense of wonder”, but shit, that’s the damn baseline anymore.

  • Nice job on this, Tim.

    Re your comment about “Microsoft Windows on the PC, a world that promises simplicity and ease of use” … I’m guessing that the emphasis is on *promises*, rather than delivers.

    I’d argue that the “small pieces” approach we’ve enjoyed online has created a simpler and more easy-to-use environment for users than Windows ever was.

  • Khurt –

    You’ve been drinking the kool-aid. You say that the open source world has never produced an easy-to-use platform. What about the World Wide Web? It’s as open as it gets. Tim Berners-Lee put his work into the public domain.

    And most of the web sites you know and love were built on top of Linux, Apache, MySQL, etc.

    Don’t get blinded by the idea that applications happen only on the PC.

  • killerbunny

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I think a lot of posters misunderstood Tim’s use of the word “champion” in this line:

    “P.S. One prediction: Microsoft will emerge as a champion of the open web platform…”

    “champion” can also mean “advocate”, so Tim means that MS will “support”,”back” open web platform, not be the “winner” of it.

  • Really excellent post Tim. I’ve always thought the success of the internet as an industry was heavily attributed to the fact that somehow the tech industry managed to play relatively nice in the sandbox. Maybe it stemmed from Googles “Don’t be Evil” or perhaps it was just a new generation leaving professional and cultural norms at the door. What I do know is this: What I like to called “Real People” people that don’t follow the tech industry, don’t think about web 2.0, open source or online monopolies, make up the vast majority of the internets users. They chose to trust Google as their gateway to information, Amazon as their virtual store and Facebook with their online social life not only because these technologies were innovative, but because these companies appeared to be trustworthy. They feel safe, friendly. The minute these companies start tearing each other down like mud slinging politicians, the minute you see “Real People” exiting the social web. Facebook and the rest are on thinner ice with “Real People” than they realize. They have always been inherently uncomfortable with the openness of the web, it goes against human nature. It was the apparent trustworthiness of Google and Facebook that has kept that fear subdued, they should not tamper with it.

  • Sebastian Lewis

    My prediction is that in their fight to centralize everything around their brand, the web will in fact become more decentralized than it has in the past 4 years.


  • gregor

    A quibble perhaps, but I don’t think apples app gatekeeper role has anything to do with the open web. As you say, anyone can create a web app for the platform with no restrictions (indeed, with important HTML5 extensions).

    And for limited efforts, a developer license allows you to circumvent the app store.

    Agreed that apples approach is a troubling harbinger and is in the same closed control mindset- but it doesn’t threaten the web.

  • David Oliver

    The “mobile Internet” is already a good example of what greedy and backward companies will do to a good thing: incompatible devices, expensive and limited access, limited and limiting applications.

    Yet I still believe that a significant portion of the Internet’s problem is that there are few alternatives to place value on content. The only valid alternative is “ad supported” – which is indirect, hides the actual costs of providing something unique and compelling and has led to many abhorrent and illogical design practices. This model also has side consequences such as the race toward zero privacy. Were there new and easy-to-use mechanisms for users to put their own perceived value on content, it’s possible a number of Tim’s issues with corporate competition would turn back into something economists and normal humans could understand: value is in the eye of the beholder.

    Also, Tim, don’t overlook what has happened to the Internet itself (the technical infrastructure) since it “went public”. There are dangerous consequences possible given the dramatic centralization we’ve seen. It’s not a “loose confederation” any longer.

  • Hi Tim,
    Great insights. One thing that will probably determine this battle – flexibility.

  • Adam

    It seems like Google, Apple, and Facebook are all competing in different areas. Google is certainly stepping on Apple’s toes in the OS market, but Apple still has the hardware. And the best description of Facebook I’ve heard is that it’s aiming to be your identity online. So it seems like the three could co-exist peacefully, the only problem being if these three are the only options in their respective category.

  • The issue with promoting developers to move to open platforms is that the users need to follow. Without the marketing bucks it can be incredibly hard to get mainstream users (not us early adopters) to try out a new service when a popular proprietary one exists.

  • One prediction: Microsoft will emerge as a champion of the open web platform, supporting interoperable web services from many independent players, much as IBM emerged as the leading enterprise backer of Linux.

    That’s a pretty interesting prediction, but I don’t see it happening unless Microsoft is humbled to the point that current top management is ousted, and a Gerstner-like figure emerges or is brought in to ruthlessly reorient the company.

    Microsoft has a fairly consistent track record now of eventually marginalizing any internal leaders that advocate for more openness and interoperability, no matter how successful they are at the company’s margins.

    And if Microsoft *is* humbled to that degree, but such a manager *doesn’t* emerge, the consequences for the company won’t be pretty.

    Frankly, I hope you’re right, because the result of the company being broken up and assets (like it’s patent portfolio) being sold off could be fairly horrifying for the industry.

  • There’s a very interesting structural model of “Small Pieces Loosely Joined”: a tensegrity. These were invented by sculptor Kenneth Snelson in the 1940s and studied extensively by Buckminster Fuller.

    A SF massage therapist made an interesting video of what happens when you undermine the cohesion between the pieces of a tensegrity: . He deliberately snips several of the tensile elements and shows what happens to the structure as a whole.

    I think most of the public views the internet as a bulletproof design. Very few people actually think about what happens when the cohesion between the small pieces is fundamentally altered by a handful of large players. I think these structures are a great graphical representation both of the structure of the Internet and how all the interconnection of the parts affect the whole.

  • Tim, I agree with your overriding bi-furcation between ‘one ring’ and ‘small pieces, loosely joined,’ but I think that while the hippie in me advocates openness as a worthy goal, in practice, openness is just an attribute, not an outcome, and (most) consumers make their buy/adoption decisions based on outcome goals.

    My experience is that consumers will cut their nose off to spite their face again and again to gain immediate 1.0 benefits over 3.0 lifecycle advantages, which more often than not, favors the proprietary, native and integrated over the open, web-based and loosely coupled approach — if for no other reason than it enables the consumer to squeeze an extra spoonful of user experience goodness.

    That’s why the Android v. iPhone battle is so interesting, as it raises serious questions about whether a performance optimized device experience (as opposed to a ‘good enough’ one) will be more or less successful by being ‘open,’ and what does open REALLY mean anyway?

    In this area, my bias is that Google themselves are selectively open (Android is open source, not the core resident Google services, like Maps, Latitude, News, Search), and that Android devices to be successful, will tilt towards the proprietary-ness of a given handset maker and/or carrier, something that I blogged about in:

    Android vs. iPhone: Why Openness May Not Be Best

    Check it out, if interested, and should be a very interesting next chapter for the Web. HTML 5 can’t materialize soon enough.



  • The nodes of Web 2.0 / the so-called web operating system, whether they are cooperative fiefdoms or competitive monopolies, have not contributed much (any?) of their core services to the World Wide Web, such that they are free of their control.

    For example, Google Search is not part of the World Wide Web. It is just another website, albeit one most of us use all the time and depend on.

    The future of the web is pretty much just as brittle, if it’s thought of in terms of Web 2.0 interoperability, as it was in terms of Dot Com silos. Neither is the equivalent of making something like HTML that exists for public uses, regardless of whether Facebook or Flickr or Google links to anyone, or not.

    As another example, it’s the difference between and the WordPress software. WordPress is a part of an extensible future of the WWW because it runs in a million places under millions of individuals’ control, rather than one place / company.

  • This is the clarion call that Jonathan Zittrain covered in his most recent book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. He refers to “generative” systems: systems that are open foster creativity and invention, as opposed to closed, proprietary systems where those things are limited to the owners of the system.

    Great minds do think alike!

  • Merlin Meyer-Mitchell

    As a Palm Pre owner I’d just like to point out that Sprint has been shipping the GPS enabled Pre with free turn by turn navigation software since it was released so Google wasn’t the first to try to use giving away this great service to sell phones.

  • Saurik fan

    …which is why you want to jailbreak your iPhone:

    (which is legal, it just voids your warranty)

  • Tim,
    It is my hope by continuous improvement, we can assure that each challenge is addressed with innovation for our mutual benefit, not that of some political entity. Via a simple framework of ‘collaboration on purpose’ we can enjoy equitable representation and equitable remuneration – and that by shared self-governance we can avoid the tyranny of control by others – across our ‘U-Netted Nations’. I believe that war can become a lost art…

  • Hi Tim

    I love the final prediction! And I hope you’re right.

  • ahmaad

    I disagree with MS dominating the web, i think google has it hands

  • Tim,

    While the idea of the interoperable is fascinating, we must consider the burden of choice placed on users of the interoperable web. The sheer volume of content available lends itself to a high variance in quality. Oft times, users are left to wade through the plethora of options to find that which is truly of value. The easy route for casual users is to simply trust the big players like Google or Amazon. These companies have established themselves as reliable, long-term service providers. I believe the greatest opportunity for smaller players would be to position themselves as “wayfinders” to guide less experienced users to the information and services they seek.

  • Tim,

    Your concern is obviously a valid one and something that is a worry but all the value of the web has come from it’s openness. All the companies you mentioned have benefited from the free availability of data. The internet itself has had the skyrocketing growth because anyone can play. To keep the growth going won’t it have to stay open? I understand that this is exactly your concern but don’t you think the companies realize it too. I know Google has been concerned about it because that is how they gather their information. But what about the others? Would Facebook truly benefit as much from a closed system as they can from an open system. Isn’t that why Facebook has been opening up more and releasing things like facebook connect? Aren’t they now supporters of OpenID? Aren’t these trends that show a recognition of the value of opening more then a closing mentality?

  • Jason

    You bring up excellent points, but I can’t help but feel that no matter what happens, if the people are dissatisfied someone or something will create something to address those issues, no matter how big the foe.

    It’s always happened so far…right?

  • bowerbird

    please forward all future comments on this to me.

    i’ll be staying in the winer hilton. thank you…


  • So…If web applications can be run on the iPhone, but they can’t access key features of the phone…

    What if someone created an iPhone app that was a web browser that would provide access to the features? An example would make it clear. On your webpage, you have some Javascript code that calls a function “ProvideGPSCoords”. This function is provided on the page, all it does is return a value which is understood to be invalid. However, if you go to this webpage with the special browser app, the app catches the function call and overrides it—inserting the GPS coords as the function’s return value. This way, anyone can write a web application that can access the GPS features; they just have to provide a link to the app.

  • Tim, your arguments are convincing: certain websites have such a strong gravitational field they suck in everything around them and get ever larger.

    Setting astrophysics aside, let’s substitute gravity with money. “After all..”, quoting Don Barzini from the Godfather, “..we are not Communists”.

    So if money really is the ultimate driver of web innovation (even for OSS, albeit indirectly) it is also the root cause for concentrations which lie at the heart of your thesis.

    I believe a good way out of the forthcoming mess you describe is to invert the relationship between monetization and closure. In other words, the more open and interoperable a company’s products/services, the greater their chances of making a dime.

    In practical terms, this means creating specific web business models around open and compatible systems. Closed systems can play too, but if they don’t share, they don’t make as much…

  • amolpatil2k

    You have described a top down view where the blogger is all important and the commenters are all crap. Which is not too off, so facebook would soon have a billion profiles. In my view, the bottom up view is yet to get explored.

    Till date top down structures have thrived because of lack of dynamism. If I make a comment, it stays on that site. If I value my comment, I’ll try to make it on a more popular site. This is what leads to consolidation.

    However it commenting became dynamic, the consolidation would happen around the commenter. That is when websites would start dying. The era of domain names would soon get over.

    Most like the future would neither be like the ring nor like the cloud. Interactions would have two aspects. Consolidation around the individual and dynamic structures in real time.

  • 1. Google is The One Ring to Rule Them All.
    2. Who, apart from Linux, is part of the other camp?
    3. I now much better understand Apple’s decision for not allowing Google Voice on the iPhone. It’s plain and simple survival.

  • Tim – I share your concern but I have a more optimistic outlook.

    Even as platform lock-in is being created in some data-heavy verticals, particularly with regard to the social web (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter) — other, countervailing forces show signs of strength.

    OpenStreetMap is disrupting the mapping data monopolies that TeleAtlas and NavTeq previously enjoyed, making Google’s mapping software less, not more, threatening.

    The open ad platform, OpenX, is shifting the balance of power back to individual publishers of content, away from domineering — and data hoovering — ad exchanges.

    Like censorship, the web sees perceives closed platforms as damage and routes around them. Aside from some excess-profit-extracting hiccups (of which the App store is one), the movement towards “small pieces loosely joined” is inexorable. It is arguably a law of all complex systems.

    The real danger lies, in my opinion, not in the platforms, but in the pipes. If a caste-system ever emerges for Internet packets, the democratic web will be at grave risk. Luckily thus far, the very players pushing for platform dominance have remained ardent advocates for net neutrality.

  • infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. :sweating now: infrastructure infrastructure infrastructure infrastructure!

    i am not worried. the web is just coming into being. necessary cornerstones like federation and syndication are just coming into being (oauth / pubsubhub). if you build the generative web spaces, they will come, users and vendors both, the vendors finally being broken into having no choice but to open up to the greater ecosystems. we’re on the right track Tim– its not the fast track, but fear not, slow & steady, hold the course.

    true its still going to be a long time before our desktops go web, before the app falls away, but i’m not overly worried about the delay. palm’s pre is kind of an experimental forerunner in this regard, & we’ll see more thursday with Chrome OS hopefully. other experiments, in increasing relevance: nintendo/google es, pyrodesktop, w3c widgets, gnome shell (js/css).

    the web is just a platform, a platform for hyper-media, for interconnection. the silos and monolopies will never create true hyper-media, so i know they are no threat, simple as that.

    @#mobile: this argument bores me to tears. mobile is perenially behind web standards, but i find nothing less interesting than measuring the vanishing distance in this Zeno’s paradox. mobile is catching up, is converging; its latency is no counter argument to standards.

    @Paul OFlaherty: users need to have the value of interop made clear to them. hopefully oauth data sharing will provide some beginning incentives, but its not until much later that the importance of hyper media, and the associate requirements of being web-enabled, become visible. whats important now is developers continue advancing the platform towards that crescendo.

    @Khurt: you’re arguing two things here.

    Your arguments are all about how technology (…) can be used to limit choice. … The FOSS space has failed to produce anything that main street wants to use. Linux, Android etc are all tech toys made by tech geeks for tech geeks.

    “Main street” may not think it wants to use 90% of the insanely complex features provided by PulseAudio[1], but FOSS is there to give people the choice, to provide a generative space where people can explore the outer bounds and develop great new things. Like Pulse, Composited X is another great example– its infinite power, tapped filtered and mainstreamed into palpable limited cases (Compiz, Clutter). Whether mainstream wants this power seems… irrelevant to me. The choice to accept or reject, to vote with your direct actions rather than with which commercial package you chose, that to me is what is valuable. In both of these cases, PulseAudio and Composited X, theres plenty of room for end users to be empowered and wowed with the stock tools (which I’d argue are competitive from an end user perspective with the best of all breeds), and theres room for the geeks to build amazing and new other empowering things thus-far undreamed.

    @Tim: in retrospect, its been two years[2] since the last “open” show-down i’ve seen on the radar, and although we’re not as high brow sophisticated as i would’ve thought we’d be by now, we’re moving right along. as a simple metric, i spend much less time worrying about apple and microsoft, and more time laughing at them; their game hasnt changed, and while the old coodges may cry for spit and polished friendly ease of use of these prepacks, i have a feeling the wheels of progress (and youth) are going to demand much more over time, and that the vendors will tie their own nooses protecting their entrenched & self-contained ecosystems, rather than do what is necessary and inevitable and open everything. vinge’s rainbow’s end is a decent comparison; the old folks too intimidated to suit up and jack in, the kids, willfully lost, up to their neck in technology. theres certainly a distance, an inability to cross the network boundaries and tinker, but systems like UPnP/DLNA are quickly working to shatter peoples preconceptions of monolithic standalone devices– its those first drops of blood in the water.


  • Great insights from Tim and everyone in this thoughtstream.

    A series of posts (including this one) inspired me to write up a prompt – “Is Twitter A Complex Adaptive System?”, and a lively discussion has ensued in the comments area over on the Emergent by Design blog.

    Please join the conversation and add your thoughts, and feel free to connect with me in the twitter hive @venessamiemis

  • Dave Manzo

    Great article Tim- but do have one point of disagreement on the Google turn-by-turn direction service. You mention:

    “A few weeks ago, Google offered free turn-by-turn directions for Android phones. This is awesome news for consumers, who previously could get this only in dedicated GPS devices or with high-priced iPhone apps….. “

    I respectfully disagree-
    I can and have been using Google Maps on my blackberry storm (and HTC Tilt prior) to get turn by turn directions. The Google Mobile app is available for free to most smart phones, and provided you have an unlimited data plan, can use the service – its not limited to their own “business partners”.

    Disagree too here for same reason…

    …”Nokia paid $8 billion for NavTeq, the leading provider of such turn-by-turn directions. GPS-maker TomTom paid $3.7 billion for TeleAtlas, the #2 provider in the market. Google quietly built an equivalent service, and is now giving it away for free — but only to their own business partners. Everyone else still has to pay high fees to NavTeq and TeleAtlas. What’s more, Google upped the ante by adding in such features as Street View. “

    All of these services are offered through the Google Maps Mobile app.

    But do like the Monopoly perspective on Amazon, Craigslist, etc. Thanks,

  • LDS

    Good luck with your OS model. IMHO it would just end up to be a marmelade of different paradigms and contrasting ideas on how thing should work. Sorry, but when it comes to complex systems, a smaller, focused group deliver better artifacts. And while people chase butterflies, MS will keep on dominating the OS arena.

  • …I agree with some of the alarm this raises, but I also have to say that from the perspective on the ground, Google is the first gargantuan corporation that I’ve ever regarded with trust. I’ve been a backer (and facilitator) of open systems for over a decade, and I have few fears about standards-busting or competition squashing that I’ve seen from other industry players.

    If I were to be faced with a choice of backing Microsoft (as it has been) and Google, my choice is clear.

    If I were to look for evidence of ethical behavior by a corporation (and its leaders) in Cupertino or in Mountain View, I’m putting my money on the Googleplex.

    If I were to choose between Google or Oracle as a place to work, or a place to purchase with confidence — I’m betting on…well you could guess.

    I worry about monopolistic behavior among my suppliers — but I’m not encountering any worries so far with Google (so far). And believe me, I’d be the first to screech loudly if the specter of anti-competitive practice reared its head.


  • Excellent post, until the backward-looking prediction at the end.

  • Andrew de Ridder

    I think Silverlight would argue with your post-script.

  • killerbunny

    As Tim predicts, Microsft will have no choice but to embrace the open web standards. Their survival in some form requires interoperating with the OSS-dominated web. And it is already happening, with support for OSS systems PHP and Apache in Azure announced at PDC.

  • Agree with everything except P.S

  • One of the most interesting things is that in this new landscape there are no rules. You cannot very easily put Google, Apple, Microsoft, even Amazon into a particular box. They tend to do everything and are shooting for nothing short of total domination. With the news that Google is actually building a Google Phone (Yes, the HW), Apple is building cloud facilities, MSFT is all over the place and Amazon too has could services, you cannot really say anymore what their next moves might be.

    Tim is right when he says that the network effect on the web clearly leads towards monopolies. However, I don’t think FOSS is the answer anymore. There is simply no FOSS equivalent of the iPhone or Google Search or Kindle, and I don’t see FOSS having any impact here.

    I still think the best hope of keeping the web open lies in having at least the protocols open and ever decreasing cost of starting startups. Even when the large closed ecosystems have taken over, there always will be new Facebooks, Twitters or dare I say Googles. This is not uncharted territory, we have been here before with AOL, MSFT, etc. There will be paradigm shifts and new players will come.

  • Andrew (and Thejesh),

    Silverlight doesn’t argue against my postscript at all. As with IBM’s support of Linux, Microsoft’s support of open standards will be selective and strategic.

    Silverlight is aimed at Flash, another proprietary software platform. That’s a competition Microsoft is happy to run using its traditional approaches. After all, Microsoft and Adobe share a business model.

    The problem in Microsoft’s competition with Google is that it is asymmetric. Read up on asymmetric warfare.

    Microsoft needs to find a new angle in competing with Google. Precisely because Google is becoming more siloed, Microsoft will become more open.

  • Vincent,

    I agree with you that Google is an ethical company, and is really trying to do the right thing. They aren’t monopolists by intention in the way that some other companies are or have been. But the gravity well is growing deeper, and more and more things will be sucked into it.

    And it’s precisely because it’s a force of nature that’s moving Google towards monopoly, it’s important for them to think through how to mitigate its effects.

    To me, the essential thing for them to do is to “draw lines in the sand,” as John Borthwick said in his outstanding post of that same name. (If I’d read it before I wrote this one, I might just have pointed everyone there.)

    One of the best lines in the sand he outlines is at the heart of what Google needs to figure out: “Do what you do best, and link to the rest.” This is a quote about journalism from Jeff Jarvis, but as John notes, it’s a key rule for how to separate functions like speech recognition or free turn-by-turn navigation that are real user value adds, from things like, say, Knol or Google Checkout, which were just me-too. And when someone else is doing a good job, Google shouldn’t go me too – they should find a way to work with that best of breed company.

    A great example would be Google support for Twitter OAuth or Facebook Connect. Google Profiles are trying to suck the social ecosystem into the Google orbit. It would be an amazing signal to the market if Google said, OK, we’ll allow someone else to own something important.

    Look at Typepad. They realized that it was best for their users if they allowed them to sign up with existing IDs, rather than forcing new users to create an account. Leah Culver has a great blog post with stats: If Google did something similar, it would be a great signal both to the marketplace AND to antitrust regulators that Google wasn’t going to try to leverage their dominance in what I’m calling out as one internet operating system subsystem into another.

    That’s OK when you’re a small company, but it’s not OK when you’re as powerful as Google is. That was Microsoft’s mistake: they didn’t realize soon enough that the rules had changed, that they were powerful enough that they had to act with new restraint. It’s the spider man rule: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

  • What killerbunny said. I meant “champion” as in support and advocate for, not that they’d be the ultimate winner.

    I don’t think that wars like this have a winner, only losers.

  • Tim, I love your quote of the Spider-Man rule. You are a true geek’s geek.

    The problem with the ‘best for the users’ metric is that in the short term it actually *is* better for users for markets to consolidate in this way (that’s why the network effect actually works, after all). Agricultural monocultures happen the same way. Diversity may be healthier in the long term, but in the short term it means more complexity and inefficiency.

    So, one of the consequences of a defacto monopoly is that it sucks all the oxygen out of the market, leading to stagnation (for a while). This hasn’t yet happened in the current market for big data-driven apps.

    I suppose if that should happen we would start to see entrepreneurs no longer attempting to build big unique data assets because the dominant player would be able to duplicate their work by throwing superior resources at it (as Google has now done for both speech recognition and turn-by-turn navigation).

    So far, despite those two examples, I haven’t yet seen evidence of that sort of reluctance. Have you?

  • BTW, as far as I can tell, Microsoft is not embracing ‘web standards’, they are embracing ‘linked data standards’, in which they are actually still catching up.

    As for their support for PHP and Apache, what that looks like to me is their attempt to take a bite out of the generic virtual server market (a huge market that IIS has been losing share in for a very long time despite kickbacks to the hosting companies) in order to compete with AWS.

    However, note how Microsoft’s approach still requires them to ‘bless’ certain solutions (as does Google’s App Engine, BTW). As long as engineers continue to start new projects using oddball languages and tools, solutions like AWS and Rackspace Cloud will probably continue to have an advantage among alpha-geeks.

    Also note that other major cloud platforms all have some sort of credible open-source implementations for users to roll their own if they want to. I really don’t think that Microsoft’s ‘open data, proprietary cloud’ approach is going to fly. Open source may not be sufficient to guarantee user freedom, but in this market it remains part of the price of admission for a platform vendor.

  • Google Maps data are provided by Tele Atlas, aren’t they ? So like others, Google “has to pay high fees to […] TeleAtlas” and are dependent on TeleAtlas. So Google isn’t really a third provider equivalent to NavTeq or TeleAtlas.

  • Gilles de St-Ex

    To continue the thinking:

    Thanks to help the debate.

  • Laurent –

    No – Google Maps data was FORMERLY provided by NavTeq and TeleAtlas. Now it’s provided by Google. That’s the whole point.

    Google knows that “data is the Intel Inside” and so, bit by bit, they are finding all the apps that depend on big data, and making sure that they own the data.

    As I said in the piece, this is fine as long as they are focused on real benefit to the consumer, but once it’s just to go after competitors, they will hit antitrust concerns.

    A big part of my point is that they need to be much more strategic about some of their projects. They have a bunch that don’t bring them a big win, but do make them look more and more like they are going down the route that led Microsoft to its date with the Justice Department and the EU.

    It doesn’t need to be that way.

  • I just noticed that part of Microsoft’s Azure platform is gearing up to become a marketplace for licensing datasets:

    This is interesting, but it looks like Microsoft wants to cut the deals for ‘third party data’ individually, and I don’t see any hint that data mashups can themselves then be relicensed to others.

  • Michael – great find on the Azure Dallas link. Thanks.

  • Business is not growing as it used to. “Doing evil” seems like the paradigm that all companies eventually slip into. It would be amusing to watch the bloodbath that is likely to take place among major web destinations. But that amusement would be accompanied with great inconvenience.

  • Google doesn’t use TeleAtlas data anymore just for the USA.
    Of course, this is surely only a step…

  • Alexander Korth

    Chances are that the Web of Data (aka Linked Data), the Web of Services, and the Web of Identities will emerge as openly accessible and interoperable competitors to Google’s knowledge through its data. Every little startup can utilize this knowledge to create appealing and meaningful services beyond our imagination. How do you think about this?

    I wrote articles about all three Web on RWW:


  • James D Robinson 4.0

    I have been observing with a heightened sense of alarm what appears to me to be an epic battle beginning to unfold between the owners and creators of content and the de facto distributors of same. The casualty count will likely be high, and I suspect contain many surprises. I predicted a few here…..

  • the multibillion dollar investment in technology that it takes to be dominant in the cloud game is somewhat reminiscent of the Cold War space race, or rather of Star Wars. or is that not an apt analogy?