Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Digital Roadmap Comes Undone?

In a recent Atlantic Monthly article, Michael Hirschorn proposes in Closing the Digital Frontier that we are close to an era of the "digital Wild West," that vast electronic ecology where everything that roamed online was designed to be free of charge. This has all changed, as we have entered a shift of the digital frontier from the Web, where the browser "ruled supreme," to one where the smart phone, the app and the pricing plan now increasingly controls the digital world. There are signs that this is coming to be; however, if this is fully realized, then this is nothing more than an enormous radical shift from openness of the knowledge web to a closed system of entrepreneurial reign.

Digital freedom, of the monetary and First Amendment varieties, may in retrospect have become our era’s version of Manifest Destiny, our Turner thesis. Embracing digital freedom was an exaltation, a kind of noble calling.

Hirschorn makes a good case, and the facts are there to back up the concept of a digital frontier slowly being shaped into something capitalistic. In the U.S., there are only three major cell-phone networks, a handful of smart-phone makers, and one company that has essentially endeavoured for the entire life of the Internet to combating the idea of open, or as Chris Anderson hailed, the revolution of "free." It's true - just think of how difficult it is for one to move legally purchased digital downloads.

Perhaps Apple has subtly taken on the digital battle that Microsoft had badly bungled when Google came along. We are already witnessing media companies pushing content through apps alongside (or even instead of) their Web sites. Netflix plans to send movies and TV shows directly to TV sets, making their customers’ experience virtually indistinguishable from ordering up on-demand shows by remote control. The web has truly moved to the living room TV, as Bill Gates had once predicted (although accidentally and largely incorrectly before the Web) in the Road Ahead.

This is an unnerving proposition. Is this the end of the era of browser dominance? Hirschorn points out that Twitter, like other recent social networks, is not even bothering with its Web site, choosing to instead focus on its more fully-featured smart-phone app. TweetDeck, which collates feeds across multiple social networks, is not even browser-based.

Have we truly entered the age where apps will compete and ultimately win over the web, as more authors and companies put their text, audio, and video behind pay walls? Google is endeavouring to find ways to link through pay walls and across platforms, but this model will clearly will be challenged by the upcoming changes to the web. Its long standing neutrality and impartiality regarding Adsense and Adwords has already been upended; advertisers now can choose where to place and pull their ads from websites. Google's slowly becoming the advertising matchmaker in the process. If this is really the beginning of the end for free and open access, then the digital wasteland has become undone. Will Web 3.0?