Are Walled Gardens the Future of the ‘net?

From the very beginning, the walled garden has been the opposite of what those who work on and around the ‘net have wanted. The IETF, and the protocols it has developed over the years, have always been about free and open access to anyone who wants to learn networking, coding, or even just what the latest baseball score for their favorite team. Of course, a number of tech giants (remember Compuserve?) fought to build walled gardens using the tools of the Internet. A user would dial into a modem pool, and access the world through a small portal that would provide a consistent and controlled interface for their entire experience, from email to news to chat to…

The same battle rages in recent times, as well. Phone makers, mobile providers, and even social media networks would desperately like to make your only interface into the global Internet a single O/S or app. From this one app, you’ll be able to talk to your friends, pay your bills, save all your data, and, in general, live your entire life. And for those times when you can’t get to what you want outside the app or social network, they will gladly go all those other places you want to go, providing identity services, and protecting you from all the big bad wolves out on the “real Internet.”

The question comes down to this: which model will win? An open DNS system which takes you to open interconnection points where servers are configured with services (most commonly a web page, but that’s not the only service out there, after all)? Or will either the device makers, providers, or social media folks win, creating a perfectly closed environment where, of course, you can “still send email to your friends on AOL from your Compuserve account, so long as you don’t mind losing all that stuff we’ve shoved into our mail application…”

Being a network engineer, I’ve always believed that somehow data will out, and people will find the open Internet a more fruitful place to be. But I’m starting to wonder. Will people trade security, the perception of security, and the convenience of a mobile phone for the real world? I’m beginning to think, the nature of humans being what it is, the answer might actually be “yes.”

Why the rant this week, and not some other week? Because I ran across a story about a service in China called WeChat (or Weixin 微信) that emulates, in fine fashion, Compuserve in the days of yore. The service, in fact, is essentially a portal that allows various vendors and people to install apps within the app, which can be used on any cell phone anyplace to do everything from hailing a cab to paying your water bill. The draw, for the folks developing the app within the app, is that they develop for the one platform, and they reach people on every possible type of phone. The draw, for the people using the app, is they get a familiar user experience for everything they do, even things they don’t do very often. The draw, for the app platform builder, is that they’re making some seven times their nearest competitor per user by leveraging fees on the various transactions taking place on their platform.

It seems like a win/win/win, except that naggling little voice in the back of my head whispering walled garden.

But what’s so wrong with the walled garden, after all? Isn’t a good thing that technology is getting to the point that we can focus on the consuming, rather than the creating or building (in fact, the point of the blog behind the post pointed to above is that the cell phone is the center of the world — again, most people are interested in consuming systems and information, not in creating them). I’ve heard it said before that isn’t such a bad thing. It’s like the car. People first built cars, then they tolerated them, now they consume them. Very few people even know how an internal combustion engine works, much less what anything beyond the stereo system actually does (other than a few fanatics, that is). The world of cars has moved from engineering cars to using them.

Maybe. But somehow I think still think we’re losing something in the walled garden. Of course we’re losing a bit of freedom, but that’s not even what I’m thinking about here. Let me put the problem this way.

Moving from engineering cars to driving them can be seen as a good thing. After all the less time I think about building cars, the more time I have to do something else with my mind, like reading Plato or Plantinga. I can listen to a podcast rather than listening to the engine or breaks for signs of some new problem. But are we facing the same thing in the world of technology?

When I use a cell phone to consume information, rather than create it, what am I freeing my mind up to do? The answer to this question is the one that really makes me worry about the future.