There is concern these days that the web is under attack as companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter wage platform wars in order to control and monetize their users. These companies have amassed large user bases, and the longer they can keep their users on their platforms and within their “walled gardens”, the more money they can potentially make off of them through services and advertisements. This causes these companies to curate web content for their users, bias search results toward their web properties and offerings, and take ever increasing liberties with their users personal information and trust. While they may not be trying to replace the web, they are trying to replicate it with a network their users will never have to leave.
I do not share this concern over the web because I’ve seen this game played out before.
Twenty years ago, online companies Compuserve and AOL tried to play the same game. Both companies amassed large user bases. They provided a gateway for people to access their version of the web, which was a moderated and curated version of content supplied by both companies and individuals.
I was a member of AOL back in the days before the web browser. At the time, it was the best way to access online content. You could participate in chat forums and user groups. You could read magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Consumer Reports. Companies advertised and created storefronts where you could buy stuff, not much different than Facebook Fan Pages of today.
With the introduction of the web browser, people discovered there was a much richer experience on the web outside of the walled gardens of AOL and Compuserve. As people left for the freedom of the open web, AOL and Compuserve’s user bases dwindled. AOL and Compuserve tried to maintain their user base by replicating their curated experience on the web, but this failed, too. I left AOL back in the late nineties, and I can’t remember ever accessing their site on the web.
The moral of the story is that you don’t bet against the web. While Facebook, Apple and Google may want to keep (or trap) their users within their walled gardens, it is only temporary. Eventually, a service or company that provides more freedom and unfiltered access to information from the web will displace these companies. It’s only a matter of time.
Trends always move in cycles. Whether it’s fashion, hairstyles or technology, there will be fads that come and go, only to return later. Trying to trap users on your platform is one of those fads. It passed once, and it will pass again.
So while I won’t bet against the web, I will bet that this fad will pass. And it’s a bet that you can take to the bank.