For anyone who knows me as a technology guy, you know that I have always been a fan of Open Source Software (OSS). When I first started using OSS professionally at Anode, I fell in love with the idea of having free access to all of the LAMP software I needed, and being able to lean on a community for assistance. From the code, to the forums, to the free tutorials, all of it was open and extremely progressive because of that. That year, I became aware of the power that the Web possesses. The Web was the conduit by which the open source world had connected and advanced their movement, and the freedom it offered to collaborate and exchange was incredibly powerful to me.
That love extended from open source and the Web to social networking when I attended my first SXSW in 2007. I was there when Twitter first took off, allowing all of the attendees to update their new found friends with their location and a status update. It was amazing. I’d meet someone (eg. @baratunde), we’d exchange twitter handles, and then I’d know what that person was doing for the rest of the time I was there. And even better, I’d know what they were doing when I left SXSW. And it didn’t matter if you had a smart phone, or an old school phone, or a browser. Twitter was truly open, and worked with you where you were. Everyone got to play.
As amazing as these two experiences were, I had one experience before either of them that was more profound and retrospectively much more disturbing. It was the transition of Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X. At first, I recognized OS X as a wonderful improvement that immediately made both OS 9 and Windows feel decrepit. Smooth transitions, beautiful windows, big bright icons. It was just gorgeous. Then, I learned that it was based on Open Source Software! OS X was actually a port of the Darwin operating system, a variant of BSD/Unix. In that one moment when I understood what that meant, I pledged allegiance to Apple and didn’t look back. Until now.
Since then Apple has created three incredibly powerful shifts in the Internet, centered around consumerism, on the foundation of Open Source Software and an open internet: iPod, iPhone and iPad.
Each shift has taken much less time to occur. And each shift represents an increasingly more seductive product and user experience which compensates the user for a more limited, closed and corporate version of the Internet. While this may seem like an Apple product bash, it’s not. I’m typing this post on a MBP and if you call me, I’ll answer you on an iPhone. I’m acknowledging that Apple has won the mindshare of the industry, consumer and producer, over and over since OS X with an agenda that offers beauty and simplicity in exchange for freedom and control. If Apple were the only player in the field doing this today, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But that’s not the case. They are influencing the entire market, and that is scary.
Doing it the Apple Way
Microsoft is going to launch an app store (just like everyone else) and they will have an approval process for getting apps in. Google is going to release ChromeOS, an operating system targeted for netbooks that is just a browser, theirs. Amazon’s Kindle has an SDK, but it’s unlikely that the SDK will enable software devs to create other methods for reading or selling ebooks. Vertical integration is the new model, and while I cannot honestly argue with the benefits it can provide to the user in terms of experience, it’s obvious that each of these platforms is philosophically closed at its core and will favor (excessively) services and commerce platforms that they control.
If it isn’t clear to you that this will create disconnectedness, consider the fact that it was once universally accepted that people could refer you to a link and know with a fair amount of certainty that they would be able to consume the experience as you have. With more and more time spent on mobile devices, and these mobile devices being vertically integrated representations of the web through the vision of Apple or Google or Microsoft, you won’t be able to rely on this sameness of experience anymore. More and more services will work only between iPhones, and only between Microsoft mobile devices, and the same anger we feel around passing MSFT Office docs around will be extended to the most normal forms of Internet communication and content consumption.
It doesn’t matter that Flash has become an integral part of the Web browser experience and has brought us all much more than multimedia access. According to Steve Jobs, “it’s buggy and should be ditched”, so you won’t get it with Apple’s flagship products. You also won’t get that content, unless it’s through an app, that you might have to buy. Club Penguin? You’ll have to wait for the app. The very thing that Microsoft went to anti-trust hell for, making IE the default and preferred browser on Windows, is now not only common practice, but supported in the name of improved user experience. Furthermore, it’s ok that the one browser you have is by all modern Web browser standards, crippled.
It’s simply wrong to say that HTML5 will see us through anytime soon. There are countless Flash sites, games and applications that are not accessible on the iPad, and your HTML5 video tag won’t render them for you. But who cares, because you can buy all the apps and games you could ever want in the app store. And it’s not really a computer, it’s a tablet/slate, so that’s ok.
Bottom Line: iUsers are blocked from all of the streaming online content delivered via Flash, forcing them to go to the default streaming media interface on the iPad/Phone/Pod: iTunes.
Combine this beautiful, closed Web with our court’s recent ruling on Net Neutrality, and it makes for a very interesting situation. There is much that I’m concerned about with this. But my greatest concern is that it seems that the Web as a level playing field, where anyone could reach anyone with a revolutionary product or service without obstruction from some potentially competing corporation, has just been dealt a near death blow.