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White, Red, or Black – Which way the Web?

When we look out over the Internet, we seem to be diverging into three
different approaches, or paths, that define how users will interact
with the wider web.  For fun (and because I used to be a big role
playing geek), let’s call these the White Path, the Red Path, and the
Black Path.  The color descriptions aren’t intended to imply good or
bad, they are just convenient labels that reflect different
viewpoints.  You may disagree with my characterization of each path
and the companies I feel best represent that path.  But since I’m
writing the article, I get to decide who’s who.

Let’s start with white.  White is the amalgam of all other colors.
White light can be broken out into its constituent spectrum and I use
it to mean an open Internet commonality.  Of course the company that
best exemplifies this approach is Google.

google

Google has an embrace/extend approach to the Internet that has as much
user interaction moving to the web as possible.  This does several
things.  First, it makes the whole issue of the OS irrelevant – the
browser is the OS.  Second, it makes more and more of the user’s
interactions ad-enabled, the bread-and-butter of Google’s revenue.
Third, it keeps Google competitive against other companies that may be
ahead of Google, whether in terms of market share or implementation.
Google’s nickname of the Borg is quite relevant when you think about
the fact that they may have started further behind (depending on the
industry), but they will eventually catch up and surpass their
competition.

This embrace-and-extend philosophy was first attempted by Microsoft.
Initially they were successful in absorbing the force of the Internet
(who else can claim to have turned a multi-billion dollar company on a
dime to build IE6?)  In the end, though, they failed.  To quote the
awesome Darth Vader, “the student has now become the Master”.
Microsoft’s fear of the browser becoming the OS is becoming more and
more real each day, and they are forced to respond by putting their
primary tools online to compete.

Google has a vested interest in making the web as ubiquitous and as
accessible by as many different platforms, technologies, and devices
as possible because it increases their ability to sell ads.  But they
also need to “guide” folks into using their tools and concepts where
possible because that offers them greater control.  So Google embraces
web standards and the open source mantra while extending their
influence by providing robust tools and infrastructure to make
building on the web easier.  Google I/O showcased this approach.
Google announced Android 2.2, probably the most advanced mobile OS in
the world right now, as well as tools to extend the Google Apps
platform (including shots at Amazon’s various cloud-based services)
and a bold attempt at gaining access to the living room via Google TV.
Any one of those would have been interesting, but the fact that they
announced so many initiatives shows that they are starting to gain
some huge momentum in the race for Internet 3.0.

Black, on the other hand, represents the absorption of all colors.  In
a nutshell, this describes Apple’s philosophy.

apple

In Apple’s worldview, the Internet should be filtered and buffered
through their App universe using Apple-sanctioned tools and devices.
The iPad, the iPhone, the iTouch – all of these represent ways to
control and shape the Internet by putting Apple between users and the
wild wild frontier.  Apple also wants to shape and control the
Internet, but their approach is to provide an experience that is so
smooth and easy that people won’t want to leave their walled garden to
visit the badlands of the unfiltered web.  There’s a small access
point to that madness provided via Safari, but the lack of Flash
compatibility serves to underscore that even when there’s an exit,
that exit is provided on Apple’s terms and they hold the leash back to
the iFortress.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with this approach.  HTML5-based
web apps can drive a near-seamless Internet experience.  However, it
means a lack of connection to the App Store’s transaction management
system, which means the user has to trust the app builder.  It’s a lot
easer to just pay $0.99 to buy a sanctioned app.  With iOS4 and iAds,
the lure of the App Store increases even more.  Apple develops ads
with major advertisers, developers put space in their applications for
those ads to run, users interact with the ads in-line, rather than
through web sites or custom advertising apps, and multi-tasking on a
more capable processor makes all this work seamlessly.  The developer
gets a chunk of revenues from the advertising, allowing the
development of lower cost, better applications.  Win-win for everyone,
so long as you’re willing to live with Apple being the gatekeeper to
all your content.  Never forget that Apple is there to sell hardware.
Content is the engine that drives hardware sales so Apple is always
going to err on the side of the providers, not the users.

Red is where things get interesting.  I use the term Red to represent
a middle path between the all-or-nothing White and Black, and Facebook
serves as the example.

fb

Facebook also wants to control and extend the web on their terms, but
they know that they can’t be everything to everyone.  They’re not the
walled garden of Apple – no devices to control and manage the user.
But at the same time, they can’t become the open-source firehose that
is Google – someone might come along and make them irrelevant.  So
they attempt to provide many many reasons to stay within their domain
(Farmville, anyone?) but they also provide (unwanted) breadcrumbs back
for those times when users leave the nest.  Would it be possible for
Facebook to become an Apple-type environment?  Sure, and they’re
looking into how to make the site more sticky by offering photo
storage, video streaming, dedicated email service, etc.  But they know
that locking down their environment too much would move people to
other, similar, services, so they try to walk that line between too
much and too little.

Facebook’s biggest bugaboo is that in order for them to make money,
they need to know EVERYTHING about their users, and their users have
to be willing to share everything about themselves.  Already the push
back is happening as Facebook keeps trying to make more and more
public while users resist.  I believe that it will take only one or
two more high-publicity privacy violation incidents for Facebook to
fall under federal regulation, in which case they will have a much
harder time making changes willy nilly.

Each path’s champions have a firm view of the future of the Web.
While I don’t believe that only one company can win, I do believe that
one company’s vision will dominate in the mid-term.  Which one, I’m
not sure, though I do have my favorite. What I do know is that the
battle between these three companies will result in rapid advances in
web technology and standards, as well as in mobile Internet hardwares.
The next five years will see an Internet radically different from
what we have today, and more and more the concept of a traditional
(Microsoft-based) desktop will become irrelevant.

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