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Winning back the Open Web

The web was born as an open, decentralized platform allowing different people in the world to access and share information. I got online in the mid-nineties when there were maybe 100,000 websites in the world. Google didn't exist yet and Steve Jobs had not yet returned to Apple. I remember the web as an "open web" where no one was really in control and everyone was able to participate in building it. Fast forward twenty years, and the web has taken the world by storm. We now have a hundreds of millions of websites. Look beyond the numbers and we see another shift: the rise of a handful of corporate "walled gardens" like Facebook, Google and Apple that are becoming both the entry point and the gatekeepers of the web. Their dominance has given rise to major concerns.

We call them "walled gardens" because they control the applications, content and media on their platform. Examples include Facebook or Google, which control what content we get to see; or Apple, which restricts us to running approved applications on iOS. This is in contrast to the "open web", where users have unrestricted access to applications, content and media.

Facebook is feeling the heat from Google, Google is feeling the heat from Apple but none of these walled gardens seem to be feeling the heat from an open web that safeguards our privacy and our society's free flow of information.

This blog post is the result of people asking questions and expressing concerns about a few of my last blog posts like the Big Reverse of the Web, the post-browser era of the web is coming and my DrupalCon Los Angeles keynote. Questions like: Are walled gardens good or bad? Why are the walled gardens winning? And most importantly; how can the open web win? In this blog post, I'd like to continue those conversations and touch upon these questions.

Are "walled gardens" good or bad for the web?

What makes this question difficult is that the walled gardens don't violate the promise of the web. In fact, we can credit them for amplifying the promise of the web. They have brought hundreds of millions of users online and enabled them to communicate and collaborate much more effectively. Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter have a powerful democratizing effect by providing a forum for people to share information and collaborate; they have made a big impact on human rights and civil liberties. They should be applauded for that.

At the same time, their dominance is not without concerns. With over 1 billion users each, Google and Facebook are the platforms that the majority of people use to find their news and information. Apple has half a billion active iOS devices and is working hard to launch applications that keep users inside their walled garden. The two major concerns here are (1) control and (2) privacy.

First, there is the concern about control, especially at their scale. These organizations shape the news that most of the world sees. When too few organizations control the media and flow of information, we must be concerned. They are very secretive about their curation algorithms and have been criticized for inappropriate censoring of information.

Second, they record data about our behavior as we use their sites (and the sites their ad platforms serve) inferring information about our habits and personal characteristics, possibly including intimate details that we might prefer not to disclose. Every time Google, Facebook or Apple launch a new product or service, they are able to learn a bit more about everything we do and control a bit more about our life and the information we consume. They know more about us than any other organization in history before, and do not appear to be restricted by data protection laws. They won't stop until they know everything about us. If that makes you feel uncomfortable, it should. I hope that one day, the world will see this for what it is.

While the walled gardens have a positive and democratizing impact on the web, who is to say they'll always use our content and data responsibly? I'm sure that to most critical readers of this blog, the open web sounds much better. All things being equal, I'd prefer to use alternative technology that gives me precise control over what data is captured and how it is used.

Why are the walled gardens winning?

Why then are these walled gardens growing so fast? If the open web is theoretically better, why isn't it winning? These are important questions about future of the open web, open source software, web standards and more. It is important to think about how we got to a point of walled garden dominance, before we can figure out how an open web can win.

The biggest reason the walled gardens are winning is because they have a superior user experience, fueled by data and technical capabilities not easily available to their competitors (including the open web).

Unlike the open web, walled gardens collect data from users, often in exchange for free use of a service. For example, having access to our emails or calendars is incredibly important because it's where we plan and manage our lives. Controlling our smartphones (or any other connected devices such as cars or thermostats) provides not only location data, but also a view into our day-to-day lives. Here is a quick analysis of the types of data top walled gardens collect and what they are racing towards:

Walled gardens data

On top of our personal information, these companies own large data sets ranging from traffic information to stock market information to social network data. They also possess the cloud infrastructure and computing power that enables them to plow through massive amounts of data and bring context to the web. It's not surprising that the combination of content plus data plus computing power enables these companies to build better user experiences. They leverage their data and technology to turn “dumb experiences” into smart experiences. Most users prefer smart contextual experiences because they simplify or automate mundane tasks.

Walled gardens technology

Can the open web win?

I still believe in the promise of highly personalized, contextualized information delivered directly to individuals, because people ultimately want better, more convenient experiences. Walled gardens have a big advantage in delivering such experiences, however I think the open web can build similar experiences. For the open web to win, we first must build websites and applications that exceed the user experience of Facebook, Apple, Google, etc. Second, we need to take back control of our data.

Take back control over the experience

The obvious way to build contextual experiences is by combining different systems that provide open APIs; e.g. we can integrate Drupal with a proprietary CRM and commerce platform to build smart shopping experiences. This is a positive because organizations can take control over the brand experience, the user experience and the information flow. At the same time users don't have to trust a single organization with all of our data.

Open web current state

The current state of the web: one end-user application made up of different platform that each have their own user experience and presentation layer and stores its own user data.

To deliver the best user experience, you want “loosely-coupled architectures with a highly integrated user experience”. Loosely-coupled architectures so you can build better user experiences by combining your systems of choice (e.g. integrate your favorite CMS with your favorite CRM with your favorite commerce platform). Highly-integrated user experiences so can build seamless experiences, not just for end-users but also for content creators and site builders. Today's open web is fragmented. Integrating two platforms often remains difficult and the user experience is "mostly disjointed" instead of "highly integrated". As our respective industries mature, we must focus our attention to integrating the user experience as well as the data that drives that user experience. The following "marketecture" illustrates that shift:

Shared integration and user experience layer

Instead of each platform having its own user experience, we have a shared integration and presentation layer. The central integration layer serves to unify data coming from distinctly different systems. Compatible with the "Big Reverse of the Web" theory, the presentation layers is not limited to a traditional web browser but could include push technology like a notification.

For the time being, we have to integrate with the big walled gardens. They need access to great content for their users. In return, they will send users to our sites. Content management platforms like Drupal have a big role to play, by pushing content to these platforms. This strategy may sound counterintuitive to many, since it fuels the growth of walled gardens. But we can't afford to ignore ecosystems where the majority of users are spending their time.

Control personal data

At the same time, we have to worry about how to leverage people's data while protecting their privacy. Today, each of these systems or components contain user data. The commerce system might have data about past purchasing behavior, the content management system about who is reading what. Combining all the information we have about a user, across all the different touch-points and siloed data sources will be a big challenge. Organizations typically don't want to share user data with each other, nor do users want their data to be shared without their consent.

The best solution would be to create a "personal information broker" controlled by the user. By moving the data away from the applications to the user, the user can control what application gets access to what data, and how and when their data is shared. Applications have to ask the user permission to access their data, and the user explicitly grants access to none, some or all of the data that is requested. An application only gets access to the data that we want to share. Permissions only need to be granted once but can be revoked or set to expire automatically. The application can also ask for additional permissions at any time; each time the person is asked first, and has the ability to opt out. When users can manage their own data and the relationships they have with different applications, and by extension with the applications' organizations, they take control over their own privacy. The government has a big role to play here; privacy law could help accelerate the adoption of "personal information brokers".

Open web personal information broker

Instead of each platform having its own user data, we move the data away from the applications to the users, managed by a "personal information broker" under the user's control.

Open web shared broker

The user's personal information broker manages data access to different applications.

Conclusion

People don't seem so concerned about their data being hosted with these walled gardens since they've willingly given it to date. For the time being, "free" and "convenient" will be hard to beat. However, my prediction is that these data privacy issues are going to come to a head in the next five to ten years, and lack of transparency will become unacceptable to people. The open web should focus on offering user experiences that exceed those provided by walled gardens, while giving users more control over their user data and privacy. When the open web wins through improved transparency, the closed platforms follow suit, at which point they'll no longer be closed platforms. The best case scenario is that we have it all: a better data-driven web experience that exists in service to people, not in the shadows.

The post-browser era of the web is coming

At yesterday's Worldwide Developer Conference keynote, Apple announced its annual updates to iOS, OS X, and the new watchOS. As usual, the Apple rumor blogs correctly predicted most of the important announcements weeks ago, but one important piece of news only leaked a few hours before the keynote: the launch of a new application called "News". Apple's News app press release noted: "News provides beautiful content from the world's greatest sources, personalized for you".

Apple basically cloned Flipboard to create News. Flipboard was once Apple's "App of the Year" in 2010, and it remains one of the most popular reading applications on iOS. This isn't the first time Apple has chosen to compete with its ecosystem of app developers. There is even a term for it, called "Sherlocking".

But forget about Apple's impact on Flipboard for a minute. The release of the News app signifies a more important shift in the evolution of the web, the web content management industry, and the publishing industry.

Impact on content management platforms

Why is Apple's News app a big deal for content management platforms? When you can read all the news you are interested in in News, you no longer have to visit websites for it. It's a big deal because there are half a billion active iOS devices and Apple will ship its News app to every single one of them. It will accelerate the fact that websites are becoming less relevant as an end-point destination.

Some of the other new iOS 9 features will add fuel to the fire. For example, Apple's search service Spotlight will also get an upgrade, allowing third-party services to work directly with Apple's search feature. Spotlight can now "deep link" to content inside of a website or application, further eliminating website or applications as end-points. You could search for a restaurant in Yelp directly from your home screen, and go straight to Yelp's result page without having to open the Yelp website or application. Add to that the Apple Watch which doesn't even ship with a web browser, and it's clear that Apple is about to accelerate the post-browser era of the web.

The secret to the News app is the new Apple News Format; rumored to be a RSS-like data feed with support for additional design elements like images, videos, custom fonts, and more. Apple uses these feeds to aggregate content from different news sources, uses machine learning to match the best content to a given user, and provides a clean, consistent look and feel for articles coming from the various news sources. That is the long way of saying that Apple decides what the best content is for you, and what the best format is to deliver it in. It is a profound change, but for most people this will actually be a superior user experience.

The release of Apple News is further proof that data-driven experiences will be the norm and of what I have been calling The Big Reverse of the Web. The fact that for the web to reach its full potential, it will go through a massive re-architecture from a pull-based architecture to a push-based architecture. After the Big Reverse of the Web is complete, content will find you, rather than you having to find content. Apple's News and Flipboard are examples of what such push-based experiences look like; they "push" relevant and interesting content to you rather than you having to "pull" the news from multiple sources yourself.

When content is "pushed" to you by smart aggregators, using a regular web browser doesn't make much sense. You benefit from a different kind of browser for the web. For content management platforms, it redefines the browser and websites as end-points; de-emphasizing the role of presentation while increasing the importance of structured content and metadata. Given Apple's massive install base, the launch of its News app will further accelerate the post-browser era of the web.

I don't know about your content management platform, but Drupal is ready for it. It was designed for a content-first mentality while many competitive content management systems continue to rely on a dated page-centric content model. It was also designed to be a content repository capable of outputting content in multiple formats to multiple end-points.

Impact on publishing industry

Forget the impact on Flipboard or on content management platforms, the impact on the publishing world will even be more significant. The risk for publishers is that they are being disintermediated as the distribution channel and that their brands become less useful. It marks a powerful transformation that could de-materialize and de-monetize much of the current web and publishing industry.

Because of Apple's massive installed base, Apple will now own a large part of the distribution channel and it will have an outsized influence on what hundreds of millions of users will read. If we've learned one thing in the short history of the Internet, it is that jumping over middlemen is a well-known recipe for success.

This doesn't mean that online news media have lost. Maybe it can actually save them? Apple could provide publishers large and small with an immense distribution channel by giving them the ability to reach every iOS user. Apple isn't alone with this vision, as Facebook recently rolled out an experiment with select publishers like Buzzfeed and the New York Times called Instant Articles.

In a "push economy" where a publisher's brand is devalued and news is selected by smart aggregators, the best content could win; not just the content that is associated with the most well-known publishing brands with the biggest marketing budgets. Publishers will be incentivized to create more high-quality content -- content that is highly customized to different target audiences, rather than generic content that appeals to large groups of people. Success will likely rely on Apple's ability to use data to match the right content to each user.

Conclusion

This isn't necessarily bad. In my opinion, the web isn't dead, it's just getting started. We're well into the post-PC era, and now Apple is helping to move consumers beyond the browser. It's hard to not be cautiously optimistic about the long-term implications of these developments.

Content platform + user platform = BOOM!

Here is a very simple thesis on how to disrupt billion dollar industries:

Content platform + user platform = BOOM!

That is a bit cryptic, so let me explain.

Traditional retailers like RadioShack and Barnes & Noble were great "content platforms"; they have millions of products on shelves across thousands of physical stores. Amazon disrupted them by moving online, and Amazon was able to build an even better content platform with many more products. In addition, the internet enabled the creation of "user platforms". Amazon is a great user platform as it knows the interests of the 250 million customers it has on file; it uses that customer information to recommend products to buy. Amazon built a great content and user platform.

Businesses with a content platform that aren't investing in a user platform will most likely get disrupted. To understand why user platforms matter, take a look at a traditional media company like The New York Times -- one of the world's best content platforms, both online and offline. But it's also one of the world's poorest user platforms; they don't have a 1-on-1 relationship with all their readers. By aggregating the best content from many different sources, Flipboard is as good of a content platform as The New York Times, if not better. However, Flipboard is a much better user platform because all of its readers explicitly tell Flipboard what they are interested in and Flipboard matches content to users based on their interest. For The New York Times to survive, their strategy should be to invest in a better user platform: they should spend more time getting to know every single reader and serving curated content that matches the user's interest. The New York Times seems well aware of this problem, with its decision last week to host its articles directly on Facebook to get access to Facebook's user platform with 1.4 billion users.

Similarly, Netflix is disrupting both traditional broadcasters and cable companies because they built a great user platform capable of matching movies and shows to users. To many Netflix users' frustrations, traditional TV broadcasters still have the better content platform, but that hasn't stopped the growth of Netflix. Furthermore, Netflix is investing heavily in becoming a better content platform by producing their own shows, including original series such as House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. Unless traditional broadcasters invest in becoming great user platforms and matching content to users, they risk losing against Netflix.

The challenge for newspaper organizations or cable providers is usually not with the technical evolution, but with changing their business model. Take the cable providers, for example. Legacy constraints like distribution models, FCC regulations and broadcast spectrum requirements prevent them from moving as fast in this direction as a Netflix might. Fortunately for most cable providers, they are also the internet providers, which allows them to become user platforms if they too can master the personalization and contextualization equation.

Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google are some of the world's best user platforms; they know about their users' likes and dislikes, their location, their relationships and much more. For them, the opportunity is to become better content platforms and to match users with relevant products and articles. By organizing the world's information, Google is building a massive content platform, and by launching services like Gmail, Google+, Google Ads, Google Fiber and Google Wallet, they are building a massive user platform. Given that they have the world's largest content platform and the richest user platform, I have no doubt that Google could dominate the web the next couple of decades.

The examples above are focused on print media, television and radio, but the thinking can easily be extended to commerce, manufacturing, education, and much more. The thesis of content platforms adding user platforms (or vice versa) is very basic but also very powerful. Adding user platforms to existing content platforms enables a transformative change in the customer's user experience: content can find you, rather than you having to find content. Furthermore, brands are able to establish a 1-on-1 relationships with their customers allowing them to interact with them in a way they were never able to in the past. By establishing 1-on-1 relationships with their customers, brands will be able to "jump over" the traditional distribution channels. If we've learned one thing in the short history of the internet, it is that jumping over middlemen is a well-known recipe for success.

Anyone building a digital business should at least consider investing in building both a better content platform and a better user platform. It's no longer just about publishing content; it's about understanding what uniquely delights each user and using that information to manage the entire experience of a site visitor or customer over time. The idea of using interests, location, user feedback, past behavior and contextual information to deliver the best user experience is no longer a nice-to-have; it is becoming a make-or-break point. It is the next big challenge and opportunity for everyone building digital experiences. This is why I'm passionate about content management systems needing to evolve to digital experience management systems and why Acquia has spent the last two years building software that helps organizations build user platforms. As I talked and wrote about years ago, I believe personalization and contextualization will be a critical building block of the future of the web, and I'm excited to help make that a reality.

The Big Reverse of the Web

I believe that for the web to reach its full potential, it will go through a massive re-architecture and re-platforming in the next decade. The current web is "pull-based", meaning we visit websites or download mobile applications. The future of the web is "push-based", meaning the web will be coming to us. In the next 10 years, we will witness a transformation from a pull-based web to a push-based web. When this "Big Reverse" is complete, the web will disappear into the background much like our electricity or water supply. We'll forget what 'www' stood for (which was kind of dumb to begin with). These are bold statements, I understand, but let me explain you why.

In the future, content, products and services will find you, rather than you having to find them. Puma will let us know to replace our shoes and Marriott will automatically present you room options if you missed your connecting flight. Instead of visiting a website, we will proactively be notified of what is relevant and asked to take action. The dominant function of the web is to let us know what is happening or what is relevant, rather than us having to find out.

Facebook and Flipboard are early examples of what such push-based experience looks like. Facebook "pushes" a stream of personalized information designed to tell you what is happening with your friends and family; you no longer have "pull" them and ask how they are doing. Flipboard changes how we consume content by aggregating the best of the web and filtering it based on our interests; it "pushes" the relevant and interesting content to you rather than you having to "pull" the news from multiple sources. Also consider the rise of notification-centric experiences; your smartphone's notification center provides you with a stream of relevant information that is pushed to you. More recently, these notifications have become interactive; you can check in for a flight without having to open your travel app. You can buy a product without having to visit their website.

What people really want is to tune into information rather than having to work to get information. It saves them time and effort and in the long run, an improved user experience always wins. In most cases, "Show me what I want" is more useful than "Let me search around and see what I can find".

With some imagination, it's not too hard to picture how these kind of experiences could expand to other areas of the web. The way the e-commerce works today is really no different than having to visit a lot of separate physical stores or wading through hundreds of products in a department store. We shouldn't have to work so hard to find what we want. In a push-based world, we would sit back as if we were watching a fashion show -- the clothing presented could come for hundreds of different online brands but the stream is "personalized" to our needs, budget, sizes and style preferences. When the Big Reverse is complete, it will be the end of department stores and malls. Keep an eye on personalized clothing services like Trunk Club or Stitch Fix.

Ten years from now we're going to look back and recognize that search-based content discovery was broken. Today the burden is put on the user to find relevant content either via directly typing in a URL or by crafting complex search queries. While pull-based experiences might not go away; push-based experiences will dominate as they will prove to be much more efficient.

Many of you won't like it (at first), but push will win over pull. Healthcare is going through a similar transformation from pull to push; instead of going to a doctor, we'll have web-enabled hardware and software that is able to self-diagnose. Wearables like activity trackers are just the start of decades of innovation and opportunity in healthcare. Helped by the web, education is also moving from pull to push. Why go to a classroom when personalized training can come to you?

We are at the beginning of a transition bridging two distinctly different types of economies. First, a "push economy" that tries to anticipate consumer demand, creates standardized or generic products in large amounts, and "pushes" them into the market via global distribution channels and marketing. Now, a "pull economy" that—rather than creating standardized products—will create highly customized products and services produced on-demand and delivered to consumers through one-on-one relationships and truly personal experiences.

This new paradigm could be a very dramatic shift that disrupts many existing business models; advertising, search engines, app stores, online and offline retailers, and much more. For middlemen like online retailers or search engines, the push-based means they risk being disintermediated as the distribution chain becomes less useful. It marks a powerful transformation that dematerializes and de-monetizes much of the current web. While this might complicate the lives of many organizations, it will undoubtedly simplify and better the lives of consumers everywhere.

5 things a government can do to grow its startup ecosystem

Building a successful company is really hard. It is hard no matter where you are in the world, but the difficulty is magnified in Europe, where people are divided by geography, regulation, language and cultural prejudice. If governments can provide European startups a competitive advantage, that could come a long way in helping to offset some of the disadvantages. In this post, I'm sharing some rough ideas for what governments could do to encourage a thriving startups ecosystem. It's my contribution to the Belgian startup manifesto (#bestartupmanifesto).

  1. Governments shouldn't obsess too much about making it easier to incorporate a company; while it is certainly nice when governments cut red tape, great entrepreneurs aren't going to be held back by some extra paperwork. Getting a company off the ground is by no means the most difficult part of the journey.
  2. Governments shouldn't decide what companies deserve funding or don't deserve funding. They will never be the best investors. Governments should play towards their strength, which is creating leverage for all instead for just a few.
  3. Governments can do quite a bit to extend a startup's runway (to compensate for the lack of funding available in Belgium). Relatively simple tax benefits result in less need for venture capital:
    • No corporate income taxes on your company for the first 3 years or until 1 million EUR in annual revenue.
    • No employee income tax or social security contributions for the first 3 years or until you hit 10 employees. Make hiring talent as cheap as possible; two employees for the price of one. (The cost of hiring an employee would effectively be the net income for the employee. The employee would still get a regular salary and social benefits.)
    • Loosen regulations on hiring and firing employees. Three months notice periods shackle the growth of startups. Governments can provide more flexibility for startups to hire and fire fast; two week notice periods for both incoming and outgoing employees. Employees who join a startup are comfortable with this level of job insecurity.
  4. Create "innovation hubs" that make neighborhoods more attractive to early-stage technology companies. Concentrate as many technology startups as possible in fun neighborhoods. Provide rent subsidies, free wifi and make sure there are great coffee shops.
  5. Build a culture of entrepreneurship. The biggest thing holding back a thriving startup community is not regulation, language, or geography, but a cultural prejudice against both failure and success. Governments can play a critical role in shaping the country's culture and creating an entrepreneurial environment where both failures and successes are celebrated, and where people are encouraged to better oneself economically through hard work and risk taking. In the end, entrepreneurship is a state of mind.

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