The ‘closing’ web: The Memeburn interview with Chris Anderson Pt I

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With additional reporting by Michelle Atagana and Steven Norris.

If you don’t know who Chris Anderson is, you don’t really understand the internet. He’s one of the great technology thinkers of our time who has given us new ways of understanding how the medium has influenced business and society, and where it is all going.

Anderson is the editor of Wired Magazine, an authority on tech culture, trends and innovation. Time Magazine called Anderson one of the world’s 100 most influential thinkers.

The Wired editor is best known for popularising two key ideas that have helped shape internet thinking today: The Long Tail and Freemium. Companies like Google, Amazon and Netflix are long-tail companies, using the internet’s ability to reach a wide, varied and niched audience at fractional costs. Freemium is the idea that if you offer basic products or services for free, and charge for advanced features, you’ll be more successful.

These ideas have been espoused in his two best-selling books, Free: The Future of a Radical Price and The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More .

Anderson is due to speak at Discovery’s Leadership Summit in the coming weeks with other luminaries such as former US vice-president and environmentalist Al Gore.

In this interview, part one of a two-part series, Anderson speaks about how our internet experience is moving from open to closed platforms, and how this presents challenges for consumers and opportunities for producers. He also touches on how HTML5 could be the web’s saviour — creating a future high-fidelity, application-like web.

Anderson gives us his thoughts on Google’s latest attempt at social, Google+, and how it’s making up for Twitter’s shortcomings, and shares some insights about his third book.

Matthew Buckland: You speak about the new “App Economy” — do you get the feeling that the web is decidedly out of fashion these days and that people are opting for controlled platforms (such as Apple’s app store)?

Chris Anderson: You’re referring to my “web is dead” article of last year?

MB: Yes

CA: I love the web, I hope the web isn’t dead, but there is a demonstrable shift in user behaviour towards mobile. And mobile brings with it two things: First of all there is a shift towards apps. Mobiles tend to be optimised for apps because of smaller screens … The other aspect of the web, which was implicit in your question, is the notion of “openness” which is built into the web. And increasingly we see closed platforms that happen to use the web as their transport and display – sites like Facebook — which are not open.

In the definition we chose, Facebook does not count as the “open web”. Your iPad does not count as the “open web”, Xbox Live does not count as the “open web”. They use the internet as transport and sometimes they use HTML as the display technology and sometimes they render in a browser. By and large, they are not open ecosystems and therefore don’t fall into Tim Berners-Lee’s original definition of “the web”.

So I would say there is very much a shift away from the wide-open web to closed platforms. Some of those closed platforms are on mobile, some of them are closed platforms within browsers, but we’re definitely seeing a shift — and frankly it worries me as a consumer but it’s a huge opportunity as a producer. So I am conflicted in that respect.

I love closed platforms as a way to build a business, but as a consumer I prefer open platforms. That’s not hypocrisy, it’s wave particle duality if you will, but that’s where we are.

MB: Why do you think people are opting for these closed, controlled platforms?

CA: Well, do you have any Apple products yourself?

MB: Yes I do…

CA: Well do you now need to ask that question? Apple has proven that a controlled experience can be a very good experience — that with control comes some certainty over the consumer experience. They can dictate how to get stuff, how to use it. And that can be a really smooth experience. Openness tends to bring with it chaos. I happen to like chaos myself, I quite like the web, but every now and then you just want something simple that works. For all that one may object to closed platforms, they tend to be quite a smooth experience.

MB: So what does this say about society? Is it a case of life mimicking art? We live in controlled societies… is this a case of the internet catching up with reality?

CA: Yes that’s a good question. I suppose you’re probably right in some respects, that we do need rules and policies and constraints to make life bearable. I can tell you as a father of children that if it weren’t for rules it’ll be Lord of the Flies. As humans we like freedom, but we also like predictability and some boundaries within which to work. Any designer will tell you that constraints are liberating. Tell me where the walls are and I will innovate within those walls. So I think there is something to that.

Clearly if you look at the app economy, half a million apps or something out there, there are very controlled sets of rules about how to write an app and how to get it in, but once those rules are set there is a huge opportunity for innovation between those walls as we’ve seen. So yes, I think that there is a place for rules and constraints and there is a place for unbridled innovation… you need both.

MB: Will there be a web in 10, 20 years time?

CA: Absolutely. In my article I made that very clear. Right now we’re seeing a shift. Commercial content is tending to shift toward these more closed platforms. Other content such as community, amateur content or content that doesn’t intend to have a business model tends to seek openness for the sake of the largest possible audience.

So you could imagine a bi-polar world where there is a completely free world that isn’t intended for business. This is the world of human-to-human communication and that exists in the open web. Then there is the commercial web which is increasingly closed. That again leans to your point that the “web reflects human society”. You have your job, and you have your life. Your interactions at work are paid interactions. Your interactions with your friends and family are unpaid. The two worlds coincide and superimpose, but the notion of commercial and non-commercial existing in the same domain is completely in line with our civilization, so I don’t see any problem there.

MB: One of the big problems about the world of mobile applications is that you have to develop multiple apps for multiple devices. It’s an industry in tremendous flux. Do you think we will in the future see a universal application standard, so you can develop once for all devices?

CA: That’s what we all want. There is some hope that HTML5 could represent that… we’ll see. We’re pretty bullish on HTML5. We’re certainly developing our apps with that in mind.

With universal standards comes the fear of the lowest common denominator. We love the web, but let’s face it — the web is not a high-resolution design platform. It’s really difficult to create beautiful and predictable rendering designs on the web. You can do it with Flash but then you break all sorts of web conventions. You can do it with fancy HTML, but then it doesn’t work in half the browsers — there’s lots of browsers out there, lots of platforms, different aspect ratios, pixel densities, operating system… some places support different versions of HTML, Javascript, Flash or not Flash, or Silverlight. We’ve been struggling with this for 20 years and it’s not getting any better.

That’s what happens when you have a completely open innovation environment. It’s very hard to establish standards that are universal. I hope HTML 5 can advance on this, but I don’t think it’s going to be the silver bullet to solve all of our problems. Right now it’s pretty simple: it’s an Apple world. You develop for iOS and Android — and you’re done.

As there is more competition, it’ll be more complex. We’re going to bet on HTML5, we’re going to accept that it is going to limit us somewhat in design fidelity — but we will accept that for the sake of production efficiency and flexibility across platforms. We’re going to continue to operate in an app environment because browsers just aren’t there yet.

Maybe someday browsers will support standards that allow us the design scale that we want — in which case we won’t need to ship an app. That would be great but we are not there yet.

MB: So a future website could actually look pretty much like an application on an iPhone or iPad device?

CA: It could do. We’re not wedded to executables, we’re not wedded to applications. We are wedded to a high-fidelity consumer experience. Right now an application is the only way for us to achieve that. If tomorrow’s browsers allow us to achieve the same thing, using the web model of content with the application being in the browser itself, that would be great — but we haven’t seen that yet.

MB: What would your advice be to Apple? Obviously HTML 5 threatens its turf. We’ve seen what some major media companies like the Financial Times have done in this space, with their web app versus the iOS app.

CA: I have learned long ago not to try and give advice to Apple. They don’t need my advice, they are doing fine on their own. The great thing about Apple is that they have an extremely coherent vision of one way of doing things — and again I love clear and coherent vision. I know how to navigate with it to accommodate them or navigate around them. Clarity is good.

But I don’t think it’s the only vision out there. It’s good to see Android rising as a competing vision, but there will be others. My advice to Apple is “keep doing what you’re doing” because that’s really helpful in establishing a direction and executing well on that. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where Apple was the only company, but I wouldn’t want to live a world where Apple wasn’t there at all.

MB: Should Apple embrace HTML5 and this new way of creating free apps outside its proprietary operating system? Is that the way Apple should go?

CA: Again, I am in no position to be prescribing any path for Apple. I think Apple understands HTML5 certainly better than I do. I have no doubt they will integrate it where appropriate.

MB: What’s your take on Googarola, the Google acquisition of Motorola Mobility?

CA: I don’t claim to know anything special about it. What do you mean?

MB: Well essentially — Google acquiring a device manufacturer and moving into hardware. What is your take on that?

CA: I don’t know if that’s what they are doing. You say they are moving into hardware, but there are other possible explanations — they could be buying a patent portfolio, they could be buying some technology spinning off others, they could get into hardware and they could spin something off the hardware side. Those are all valid approaches, but I am not privileged to their thinking on that.

MB: So do you think it would be a good idea for Google to move into the consumer hardware space? And what advantage do you think that would give them?

CA: I really don’t want to speculate on that.

MB: For me, what makes today’s web and mobile sites or platforms successful is “simplicity”. We live in an age of distraction and we have lots competing for our attention. Do you think simplicity, the concept, is key to the successes of many of the large successful internet companies of today?

CA: Yes, I think that’s well put. Simplicity is one way to put it. It’s lowering the barrier to entry. It’s clear what to do and it’s clear how to do it. That’s crucial. I think what we’ve learned from Apple is focusing on clear easy benefits. It’s the key to their success. All companies have lessons to learn there.

Google has clearly made some mistakes in social by building products that were too complex to both use and understand. I think Google+ is an effort to make something simpler and more obvious. It’s obviously more complex than Twitter.

One could argue that for all Twitter’s success, its simplicity is also a constraint in that it’s hard for the service to evolve to address secondary issues of true conversations without adding a whole layer of complexity that’s contrary to their mission. I do take your point, and broadly, simplicity is something every successful product has — but it can’t be the only thing it has.

MB: It seems you’re quite weary on commenting on what Apple should or shouldn’t do — but here’s a big question… We’ve see how Android has grown in numbers, so do you think that Apple should open source its platform like that of Google’s Android?

CA: I am not going to go there. My tablet is an iPad, and my phone is Android… I live in both worlds. I am huge open-source evangelist. As you know my robotics company is 100 percent open source. I fully understand the advantages of open source, but that said, I love my tablet. I think that the Apple model, a closed system in the hands of a visionary genius, is a beautiful thing. So I am not really dogmatic about this, I think there is a place for both open and closed. I wouldn’t want the world to be only one or only the other. I think Apple is doing just fine. They don’t need to deviate from a successful model.

MB: Looking at the open ecosystems and the closed ecosystems that you’ve come across, what would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of either of these?

CA: There are books to be written on that. It’s a big question. Broadly the strength of openness is that you get a breadth of participation and lots of new ideas come in. There’s lots of energy, there are applications you wouldn’t have thought of and you could do faster, cheaper and better in open.

The downside of open is that, in the absence of clear leadership and vision, it can become chaotic and over-burdened with things that are very interesting to software engineers but not very interesting to the rest of the world. We’ve definitely seen lots of open source software projects become over-complicated. And to your earlier point about simplicity, the genius of Firefox is that in the hands of strong leaders they’ve managed to make it a simple and easy to use product, despite all the bells and whistles that software engineers might want to put in. So I do think that openness is an incredibly powerful technique, but requires very a special class of strong leaders with clear visions to be successful.

The success of closed is that you have the traditional form of command-and-control organisation, so that a clear vision can create a good product without having to jump through all sorts of hoops in inventing new organisational structures. In the open source world if you have a clear vision that’s not enough, you also need to create an organisational structure that incentivises all these volunteers to follow your vision. In a company it’s really easy, you pay them and you tell them what to do. So I would say that leadership and vision is easier to execute in a closed system than it is in an open system. But in those rare cases where you have leaders with both vision and organisational skills, an open system can get you there faster.

MB: What technologies do you think are defining our future in the web and the media world?

CA: Obviously the shift toward mobile and tablets and smartphones in particular is the biggest driver. I think what we’re seeing here is an opportunity to rethink the user interface, rethink the experience of consuming media. It’s rethinking pricing, rethinking how we get media, rethinking what social means as a form of marketing. So it’s like the web was 20 years ago, it’s a brand new domain. Nobody really knows anything and we’re all groping in the dark. We’ve learned a lot from the web about what works and what doesn’t work and I think that we have an opportunity to right some wrongs.

For example, on the tablet, this time these platforms have come out with an eCommerce model built in via the iTunes or Android stores. This means we have the capacity to try different pricing and economic models. Before we didn’t have the physical ability so everything had to default toward banner ads as a business model.

But now we have the capacity to do everything from Freemium to micropayments to pure paid content. We have the capacity to integrate with social and really understand what people want, how they get content in a way we didn’t have 20 years ago on the web.

Obviously we continue to do print and the web as well as we can and innovate there, but mobile is an opportunity for us to really come at these questions of what business are we in anew and through radical experiments in trying to figure out what consumer behaviour is going to look like and how people want to interact with our products on tablets and smartphones. As Wired magazine it’s our job to be a laboratory for these things. You’ll see more and more experiments coming out in that.

MB: It’s been some time since you wrote your book. Give us some successful examples of freemium.

CA: Since I wrote the book, the app economy has risen. Right now freemium is really the only major business model in the app economy since the rise of the iPhone, the iPad and the Android Marketplace. The shift of consumer behaviour from traditional desktop to mobile has all been built around freemium. There are many examples prior to the app economy but they are largely on the web. The rise of the app economy and the dominance of freemium within that has been the big new trend.

MB: What’s your take on Google+? Do you think that it is a fresh new take on social networking, or do you think just more noise?

CA: I like it a lot. I think it’s early days yet so I am still trying to figure out quite how to use it and get critical mass, but I think it solves one of the problems of Twitter which is a lack of a secondary engagement stream, and the notion of comment and of being able to engage in a conversation with people that doesn’t have to be broadcast to all of your followers.

I like that a lot. I like the multimedia aspects of it. It’s really easy to share pictures and videos and get a little preview of the links. I think that it’s still harder to navigate than Twitter. There is still the feeling that it doesn’t have the same critical mass of Twitter. It’s coming out of the gate, because you can write longer which I like and you can include photographs.

It’s become a more contemplative or thoughtful place than Twitter. Google+ feels less newsy and ideas are more fleshed out than condensed into snippets like Twitter, but by the same token it feels less urgent. Google+ is a more contemplative place and more incoherent. I haven’t yet managed to create a stream that feels as focused as my Twitter stream, but these are early days yet.

I would rather post on Google+ than I would on Twitter mostly because I am just not funny enough or pithy enough to get my thoughts down to 140 characters. So I like having a little more room, I like having a comment stream. I like engaging in a proper back-and-forth with people that doesn’t have to be broadcast to my followers.

That said, I am still on Twitter, I find it very useful for little broadcast messages where I want to point people to a link so I think [the answer is] somewhere between those…

I am pretty bullish on Google+. I do think that it’s going to work this time. It’s relatively well designed and it gets better by the day. I am a big fan of Google’s overall efforts and integration across the products. I pretty much live on Google with Gmail, Calendar and Docs and all that. I want this to succeed. That said, I am not giving up on Twitter any time soon.

MB: Your third book… can you tell us a bit more about it and the ideas you’re exploring there?

CA: This is based on an article I published in Wired last year called “The New Industrial Revolution”. It’s about the extension of the web’s revolutionary innovation model into the new world. Basically it’s about how the “Maker Movement“, which is using democratised tools of production, is providing a new manufacturing model and can be a new way to make things — real things that both allows more people to do it… a longtail of products that don’t just necessarily fit the mass-production model and possibly the future of manufacturing the developed world where labour costs may be high, but innovation potential is higher yet.

  • Read part two of this interview on the Future of Media and Journalism
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