Don't Fear the Apps
Wired is worried. The magazine has published two long essays that proclaim the death of the Web--and look to assign blame. The idea: Consumers are increasingly choosing apps over web sites. This is bad, Wired says, because apps, whether they are Facebook apps, or iPhone apps, or Salesforce.com apps, are effectively controlled by big companies.
What's happening? Well, Chris Anderson, Wired's editor, offers a socioeconomic explanation: He blames capitalism, and says that the the rise of apps, or, more properly, application platforms looks a lot like the rise of monopolies in railroads, telephone service, and electricity.
It is the cycle of capitalism. The story of industrial revolutions, after all, is a story of battles over control. A technology is invented, it spreads, a thousand flowers bloom, and then someone finds a way to own it, locking out others. It happens every time.
Michael Wolff, the founder of Newser and a Vanity Fair columnist, answers the same question with the great man theory of history: It's Mark Zuckerberg's fault!
Mark Zuckerberg possessed a clear vision of empire: one in which the developers who built applications on top of the platform that his company owned and controlled would always be subservient to the platform itself. It was, all of a sudden, not just a radical displacement but also an extraordinary concentration of power. The Web of countless entrepreneurs was being overshadowed by the single entrepreneur-mogul-visionary model, a ruthless paragon of everything the Web was not: rigid standards, high design, centralized control.
Now, both Wolff and Anderson acknowledge that nobody is making customers choose to spend time on networks owned by large corporations rather on than the open Web. But they gloss over the fact that the poor, downtrodden entrepreneurs getting squeezed out by Zuckerberg and Apple's Steve Jobs, are choosing those networks too. And there's a good reason for that: Closed networks pay better than open ones.
Why would you want to build a sales force and sell display ads for pennies at a time when you could just focus on your product and let Mark Zuckerberg take care of your revenue? Sure, maybe you're giving up your freedom in some theoretical sense, but it might be worth it.
The app era has undoubtedly been good for some entrepreneurs--Zynga has built a $300 million business inside of Facebook, and there are countless small software companies making money on the iPhone. I suppose we may look back one day on these successes and see them as an aberation, but maybe not.
I won't be cowering before my Facebook profile or my iPhone home screen just yet.
(NB: If you don't read the essays themselves, check out the page design, which offers both essays is dueling columns. Very cool!)