We've talked a few times about the media's obsession with "apps"
as the solution to what ails them. They get one glance at the control that an app appears to provide, and they go wobbly in the knees and fail to consider basic trends and basic economics. As a few folks have noted, locked down apps are like the CD-ROM craze
among media types just as the web first became popular. Who won that battle?
The latest reporter to fall under the sway of the app-run future is The Atlantic's Michael Hirschorn -- a writer who's work I usually like quite a bit. He writes eloquently about the "closing of the digital frontier,"
and predicts that the days of the browser are dying, as the days of the app are rising. In the process, he misleadingly attacks the basic economics of free, the history of Silicon Valley, and some rather important trends.
He kicks it off, as nearly all attacks on the economics of digital goods does these days, by mocking the old "information wants to be free" phrase, which he falsely suggests led the world astray. Rather than recognizing the basic economic forces that made (and still make) digital goods to be driven towards free, he pretends it's just an idea a bunch of "hippies" had -- that somehow hypnotized everyone else:
With the long tail of Brand's dictum chopped off, the phrase Information wants to be free--dissected, debated, reconstituted as a global democratic rallying cry against monsters of the political, business, and media elites--became perhaps the most powerful meme of the past quarter century; so powerful, in fact, that multibillion-dollar corporations destroyed their own businesses at its altar.
It's a bit of a Schrodinger's-cat situation when you try to determine what would have happened if we had not bought into the IWTBF mantra, but by the time digital culture exploded into the mainstream with the introduction first of the Mosaic browser and then of Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, in the mid-'90s, free was already an idea only the very old or very obtuse dared to contradict.
Of course, it wasn't some blind support for a mantra that resulted in so much being free online. It was the basic economics of content, and a recognition of how those models can work. But, Hirschorn is so sold on this idea that "free" was just the pipedream of a bunch of digital hippies someone tricked the rest of the world into buying, that the one story he uses to explain this sense of "gospel" actually seems to disprove his point. He actually suggests that the fact that the online world quickly and decisively debunked the infamous 1995 Time Magazine technopanic about online porn
is an example of the unwillingness of the digerati to be open to new ideas:
At the WELL, the core gospel of an open Web was upheld with such rigor that when one of its more prolific members, Time magazine's Philip Elmer-DeWitt, published a scare-the-old-folks cover story on cyber porn in 1995, which carried the implication that some measure of online censorship might not be a bad thing, he and his apostasy were torn to pieces by his fellow WELL-ites with breathtaking relentlessness.... In retrospect, what seems notable is the fervor with which digital correctness--the idea that the unencumbered flow of everything, including porn, must be defended--was being enforced. In the WELL's hierarchy of values, pure freedom was an immutable principle, even if the underlying truth (that porn of all kinds was and would be increasingly ubiquitous on the Web, with actual real-life consequences) was ugly and incontestable.
Now, I put a brief ellipsis in the middle of that paragraph, because right in the middle, Hirschorn hides the key fact: that those folks who pointed out the massive problems with the story
! Hirschorn basically tries to hide that point in the middle of the paragraph, where the beginning and the end of the paragraph suggest that people pointing out the massive flaws and outright ridiculousness of both the "study" and the Time report based on the study, were somehow overreacting in this religious fervor to sustain the digital wild west. The fact that Hirschorn even admits that the study was flawed, and then still claims the debunking was "political correctness" is bizarre and, quite frankly, insulting. Those who responded to the report didn't do so out of some "porn must be free" ethos. They did so out of a belief that truth is more important than blatant lies.
Hirschorn then goes on to make a stunningly ignorant statement concerning how the entertainment industry responded to the "open and free" internet:
Ironically, only the "old" entertainment and media industries, it seems, took open and free literally, striving to prove that they were fit for the digital era's freewheeling information/entertainment bazaar by making their most expensively produced products available for free on the Internet. As a result, they undermined in little more than a decade a value proposition they had spent more than a century building up.
Wait. Which "old" entertainment industry is he talking about here that put its most expensively produced products onto the internet for free? Last I checked, we seem to have a new story pretty much every single day about just how hard the old entertainment industry is fighting to stop its content from being online for free. Furthermore, in the few cases where they have put stuff online for free, it's not because they were "striving to prove they were fit for the digital era's freewheeling information/entertainment bazaar," but because they were dragged kicking and screaming after someone pointed out to them that others
had already put all their content online for free, and that if you put your content online, you actually had some ability to monetize it -- whereas, if you left it to everyone else, you made that more difficult. Somehow Hirschorn doesn't know this. It makes me wonder if he even uses the same internet the rest of us use.
This is the myth of "the original sin of free" all over again, where otherwise smart people think the decision of some to go free wasn't actually driven by marketforces, and that there actually was a different choice back then. These forgetful souls don't want to acknowledge that paywalls and micropayments have been tried time and time again since the early days of the web -- and they almost all have failed.
But now, it seems, things are changing all over again. The shift of the digital frontier from the Web, where the browser ruled supreme, to the smart phone, where the app and the pricing plan now hold sway, signals a radical shift from openness to a degree of closed-ness that would have been remarkable even before 1995. In the U.S., there are only three major cell-phone networks, a handful of smart-phone makers, and just one Apple, a company that has spent the entire Internet era fighting the idea of open (as anyone who has tried to move legally purchased digital downloads among devices can attest).
It's a weird sort of argument that plays up the benefits of a lack of competition in the marketplace.
Apple, for once, is swimming with the tide. After 15 years of fruitless experimentation, media companies are realizing that an advertising-supported model is not the way to succeed on the Web and they are, at last, seeking to get consumers to pay for their content.
Actually, plenty of media companies are finding that an ad-supported model works great. And, yes, while many publications are seeking
to get consumers to pay, history has shown that it doesn't tend to work very well in the long run.
They are operating on the largely correct assumption that people will be more likely to pay for consumer-friendly apps via the iPad, and a multitude of competing devices due out this year, than they are to subscribe to the same old kludgy Web site they have been using freely for years. As a result, media companies will soon be pushing their best and most timely content through their apps instead of their Web sites.
That's one theory, but it seems unlikely beyond a certain niche. Yes, people will pay for some apps. But already some are realizing that the web itself is actually better
. And, the key point that so few app-afficionados seem to recognize is that apps and websites really aren't that different
. Most of the things that an app can do can also be done on the web
. And, as HTML5 starts to catch on, the web will be able to do even more. Hell, the dirty little secret out there (which isn't really a secret -- it's just that a lot of folks praising apps don't realize it) is that a good percentage of these "apps" that they're so amazed by? They're really webpages. They're really HTML that's wrapped in a little app container. But there's no reason they can't just be HTML -- and as the inevitable market forces continue, many are likely to move to the web, and get out from under the withering thumb of control of Steve Jobs.
On a more conceptual level, the move from the browser model to the app model (where content is more likely to be accessed via smartly curated "stores" like iTunes, Amazon, or Netflix) signals the first real taming of the Wild Digital West.
Statements like this remind me back of the days when people would load up their computer desktops with all sorts of apps as well. And then the web got good. Those who don't know their history are doomed to miss the fact that it's about to repeat...
Apple's version of the West has nice white picket fences, clapboard houses, morals police, and lots of clean, well-organized places to spend money. (The Internet, it seems, is finally safe for Rupert Murdoch.) These shifts are seemingly subtle, but they may prove profound.
AOL's version of the West, back in the 90s, also had nice white picket fences, clapboard houses, morals police and lots of clean, well-organized places to spend money. And then people discovered the web. And all that got abandoned quickly.
Like the AOL of the 90s, it is true that the closed platform of the iPhone offers a nice on-ramp for people to learn how smartphones can work, and what they can do. But, in the long run, the openness of and raw innovation of the open internet won out. Why does Hirschorn think that the same won't happen again? Oddly, when he does get around to Google -- who is providing one extremely popular open road -- he repaints Google's position as being on the defensive and trying to preserve an old business model:
Google, which built its once monopolistic position by harnessing the chaos of Web search, has been forced to move aggressively to preserve its business model against this new competition: it has teamed up with the Apple-scorned Flash; is making conciliatory gestures to the content owners it once patronized; has reached a deal to purchase a mobile ad-sales platform; and is promoting its own vision of the future based on cloud computing. Phones using its open-source smart-phone operating system, Android, are outselling the iPhone. Even so, Google still needs for the Web, however it's accessed, to remain central--because without contextual search advertising, Google ceases to matter. Smart phones in general, and the iPad more pointedly, are not driven by search.
Again, most apps actually are just webpages. And there isn't anything about Google's business model that requires the web to be central. I have plenty of apps on my Android phone that have Google contextual ads. Also, the last point: that smartphones are not driven by search, seems utterly bizarre to me. I use search pretty damn frequently on my phone.
All of this suggests that the era of browser dominance is coming to a close.
Except that most of the points leading up to that conclusion weren't substantiated or were blatantly wrong.
And then, Hirschorn really goes off the deep-end. He brings back up the importance of paywalls, which leads to this doozy of a statement:
If they don't end up licensing original content, networks such as Twitter and Facebook will become purely communication vehicles.
Wait, what?!? Twitter and Facebook are
communication tools. That's why people use them. What does he think they are? That's like saying, a century ago, that if the phone company doesn't license radio programs, the telephone might just be used for communication.
Honestly, this article is one of the more bizarre ones I've read in this style. It's as if it's written by someone living in an alternate universe, and has no access to history or general computing trends.