Sergey Brin is a smart dude, but I don’t always agree with him. In the recent Guardian article, he shoots for a two pronged take on why the net is threatened, now more than ever:
- Government regulations/censorship (including private sector lobbying for more of this).
- Walled gardens, where content isn’t freely indexable by third parties.
The former is a problem. I can see why it’s happening, but the perceived (by politicians) problems aren’t always easy to solve by limiting access to this page or that site. We’ll leave that alone for now.
Additionally, I think he’s spot on when he says that content providers need to shape up. The US has way better legal and reasonably cheap access to streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, the networks) than Europe*, and as such, has less movie/TV copying going on. It’s as simple as that; provide a better experience at a decent price and people will use it.
The walled garden, though, is another matter altogether. I’d say it boils down to user experience for the user and content provider alike. That’s where the walled garden shines and the free, wild net at large doesn’t.
This user experience boils down to three tenets:
1) Identity: The first cornerstone of the garden is identity. The gardener knows who you are, so whenever you do something inside said garden – buy stuff, consume content – you don’t (always) need to fill in your credit card details or sign up to Yet Another Service. (I have more than 250 site logins in my personal password keychain. Yes, I had to buy a tool to manage my identity online before it got out of hand.)
Attempts at solving this problem in an open, non-obtrusive manner have all failed, more or less miserably. Site operators cave in and offer Facebook based signup procedures, Disqus-based discussion threads or other third party supplied services that lower the barrier of entry for the users. I can’t say I blame them.
2) Predictability: The second cornerstone lies in users’ knowing what they can expect. Sure, people gripe about the Facebook timeline and various other pet peeves, but the bottom line is that the gardens are known environments that behave in predictable ways. Additionally, it’s often possible to trust the garden without trusting every party inside it. I use PayPal whenever I need to buy stuff from some random country. Why? I know how it works, I trust them – I don’t necessarily trust the site operator to be on top of security or… well, sanity.
Yes, PayPal is a non-bank-regulated entity still offering monetary services, imposing arbitrary limits and being known for cutting people off for shaky reasons, with a very limited means of appeal for the affected. It’s still a better option than just whipping out the credit card because I know PayPal is at least semi-trustworthy, which is way more than what I know about joe-random-salesguy.mx.
On the server side, it’s essentially the same thing. As Cam pointed out a little while back, streaming tend to be a lot more fun on iOS than via Flash. Streaming to my Macbook works in different ways for Hulu, Netflix, YouTube and Crunchyroll. Streaming the same content to my iPad gives a way, way more consistent experience.
Services that try to do something interesting clientside and stick to web standards still must cope with people using old browsers or Flash versions, perhaps with unpredictable client platforms. It’d be very, very hard for non-huge site operators to test for anything but the true mainstream. If, on the other hand, I provide a service for iOS devices, they’re predictable. If I provide a service for Android devices, they’re predictable. Time can be spent doing useful things instead.
3) The almighty bill: Long story short, if you’re living on the open Internet and make a living by selling original content, you have to figure out how to do this properly or die trying. If you’re a bit player, good luck. Even The New York Times is still trying to strike that balance. In contrast, a walled garden both makes illegally accessing your offered content difficult and while making it very easy for the user to pay (if required).
Naturally, life is much simpler if you’re Amazon – peddling actual wares and wanting to show the world your garden. Or Google, where you’d be happy to have and offer the benefits of a garden but your whole existence builds upon other people’s content, from search engine hits to cute kittens on YouTube.
The walled garden makes a lot of sense, both from a user perspective and a developer perspective. This is by no means beyond Google, who’s trying to re-implement Facebook, re-implement PayPal and use their clout to force OEMs into their own branded version of Android (“Do as we say, or you can’t have the Google apps”). Data in Android apps are by no means easier to index by search engine than data in iOS apps.
Perhaps the most telling thing, though, is that Mr. Brin is quite happy to complain that the services of others are closed (bad), while at the same time keeping the search API** of Google – you guessed it – closed.
*) Yes, we’re keenly aware that Netflix is available in some places in Europe, but you’ll find the Comedy/Sci Fi/Zombie and Alien crossover subcategory in the US store larger than the entire Comedy category in the UK one. Not quite the same thing.
**) Custom search is a far cry from API access to Google’s main index.