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Thursday, November 19, 2009

On the Fight Over Control of the Web

Tim O’Reilly argues that we’re heading for a web war – an ugly fighting over the control of the web, which goes against the web as an interoperable platform:

[W]e’ve grown used to a world with one dominant search engine, one dominant online encyclopedia, one dominant online retailer, one dominant auction site, one dominant online classified site, and we’ve been readying ourselves for one dominant social network.

But what happens when a company with one of these natural monopolies uses it to gain dominance in other, adjacent areas? I’ve been watching with a mixture of admiration and alarm as Google has taken their dominance in search and used it to take control of other, adjacent data-driven applications. I noted this first with speech recognition, but it’s had the biggest business impact so far in location-based services.

A few weeks ago, Google offered free turn-by-turn directions for Android phones. This is awesome news for consumers, who previously could get this only in dedicated GPS devices or with high-priced iPhone apps. But it’s also a sign just how competitive the web is getting, and just how powerful Google is getting, because they understand that “data is the Intel Inside” of the next generation of computer applications.

Nokia paid $8 billion for NavTeq, the leading provider of such turn-by-turn directions. GPS-maker TomTom paid $3.7 billion for TeleAtlas, the #2 provider in the market. Google quietly built an equivalent service, and is now giving it away for free – but only to their own business partners. (...)

Most interestingly, this move sets the stage for the future competition between Google and Apple. (...) Apple controls access to the dominant device of the mobile web; Google controls access to one of the most important mobile applications (...)

[W]e’re facing the prospect of Facebook as the platform, Apple as the platform, Google as the platform, Amazon as the platform, where big companies slug it out until one is king of the hill.

Admittedly, some of the dominant platforms Tim points out are built on top of sort of democratic crowd wisdom; Google’s result rankings are powered by the specifics of how people around the world prefer to link to one another; Wikipedia is made up of our collective typing; on eBay, we’re selling stuff to each other. In all of these the middle man still has control, but it may not be a classic monopoly – this time around, playing nicely seems to increase your chance of long term survival. Google, for instance, has been playing very nice recently, with lots of open source initiatives, tools to make things more transparent, focus on data export and so on; Wikipedia on the other hand is giving away all content under flexible licensing terms, previously GNU and now Creative Commons.

Or is this just a more subtle way to introduce the platform monopoly of the future? What happens when an API is cancelled, our user accounts get banned, our content gets deleted or not accepted in the first place, or the platform provider decides to ban certain countries from its content, or decides to censor some of its content in some countries? Will we have enough useful competition to switch to, or are we locked in because it just so happens that only one or two players have the resources to create the kind of backends needed for tools working on this immensely fast changing and wide web? Will there only be a few dominating companies, each with a massive user base, and whatever independent developers throw on the web, these companies can copy into their existing tools – because that’s where people already are, crushing competition not because their individual copies are better, but because they’re the host of a few immensely popular and cool tools which manage to carry their other offerings?

[Via Waxy.]


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