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Tim Peter Thinks

Tim Peter


August 25, 2010

Is the Web dead? And, if it is, why should you care?

August 25, 2010 | By | No Comments

Have you heard the big news? It appears the web is dead. At least that’s what Chris Anderson is saying over at Wired Magazine this month. In the Web’s place, Anderson suggests a closed environment – think Facebook and iPhone apps – is using the Internet to replace the existing, open Web. Were you even aware there was a difference between the Internet and the web? I suspect not. And, frankly, for most people, it’s not a difference worth paying attention to.

The basic argument goes like this: apps and controlled environments like Facebook are choke points, limiting consumers’ access to only the content those providers permit. The winners? Anyone who can control, and monetize, the choke points. The losers? Google, whose search spiders can’t get past the choke points. And, eventually, you, when you can’t get content you want without paying some type of premium.

Anderson argues this process is well underway. For instance, he notes the growth in the market share for pageviews among the top 10 sites on the web – from 31 percent in 2001 to roughly 75 percent in 2010. These sure sound like choke points, right? But, remember, most of the top 10 highlight content NOT created by the site itself and frequently direct traffic offsite. Think Google, Yahoo, Facebook, YouTube, etc.

Anderson suggests one reason the rise of choke points is inevitable is because ad dollars haven’t moved to the Web as much as traffic has. Without choke points, what’s going to appeal to advertisers? But, to suggest that online media has failed as an advertising medium due to limited clicks is counter-intuitive; nobody clicks on broadcast-media advertising, yet we don’t doubt its effectiveness (or, at least, we don’t doubt its effectiveness enough). Similarly, to suggest no brands have been built in the Web age is absurd. Ever hear of Amazon? Facebook? Google? Did they grow due to heavy broadcast media ad spending? Of course not. Maybe online ads attract fewer dollars because sophisticated brand builders are gaining mindshare through more efficient use of their resources.

As for Anderson’s “…single entrepreneur-mogul-visionary model, a ruthless paragon of everything the Web was not: rigid standards, high design, centralized control” argument, I say “Meh.” Didn’t Facebook come under fire recently for making the content on their site available to Google?
These visionary entrepreneurs want to have their cake and eat it, too. It’s not a case of “either/or.” It’s very much a case of “and.”

Don’t believe me? Then why is WebMonkey (owned by Wired, I should add) highlighting great, open-web focused techniques by, among others, Apple? Isn’t that The very same Apple accused of following the “…single entrepreneur-mogul-visionary model”. Hmm…

And what about the idea that apps fragment content discovery and minimize Google’s role? Actually, it’s possible Google will suffer. But it’s equally likely some entrepreneurial soul will fill the same role among content within apps that Google has performed for the web. Why? For the same reason Google achieved its dominance: because customers are looking for someone to help them find things. Maybe Google won’t fill the search role for apps. But it’s likely someone will. If disruptive technologies like the web have taught us anything, it’s that the established players don’t always stick around, but it’s rare that the services the affected companies offer don’t also reappear in the new context. And don’t many people worry about Google’s influence due to its size in the search market? This may be one way to limit the effect of their hegemony.

Assuming the web is dead (I don’t, in case you hadn’t noticed), why should you care? Two big reasons:

  1. Are these choke points blocking your access to customers? Can you get a message to any customer at any time saying whatever your choose? If yes, then no worries. If not, I’d be concerned. In this regard, the iPhone App Store is a little problematic; Android, not so much.
  2. Are they – or could they in the future – increasing your cost to reach customers? This is really the same as #1, expressed in economic terms. Between internet service providers, marketing firms, e-mail hosting companies, publishers, etc., you’re already paying to talk to customers. Are the “they” in this scenario adding to those costs or simply changing who you’re paying? As long as it’s not the former, I wouldn’t get too worked about it.

We can expect to see seismic changes in the online world over the next decade due to mobile’s influence – just like we saw over the last decade-plus due to the Web itself. And that’s OK. Stressful, sure. But still OK.

Think I’m nuts? Do you think the web is dead? Do you think it’s troubling? Tell us all about it in the comments.

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Tim Peter


September 17, 2009

Chris Anderson's "Free: The Future of a Radical Price" (Book Review of the Week-ish)

September 17, 2009 | By | No Comments

There’s an old joke about a physicist and an engineer who spot a pretty girl walking towards them. The physicist notes that if he continually halves the distance between himself and the girl, he’ll never reach her, since dividing by half never can result in zero. “Sure,” says the engineer. “But for all practical purposes, you can get close enough.”

And it’s with this in mind that we look at Chris Anderson’s new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Anderson thinks seriously big thoughts. First he came up with The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, one of the 12 most important business books of the last 10 years. And for many writers, a book like that would make a career.

But not Anderson. He’s continually looking for what’s next. And he thinks he’s found it with Free. In “Free,” Anderson argues that we’re entering – or have entered – a new age, one in which marginal costs race towards zero, creating untapped possibilities for those businesses able to “free” their mind from yesterday’s business models and embrace the power of Free.

When Anderson is at his best, he offers compelling evidence of companies using this “power of free” to drive, counter-intuitively, even greater revenues and greater profits. His favorite example is Google, a company that assumes they’ll never charge consumers for their products, though he also offers plenty of others like open source software companies like Red Hat and predicts the same for pharmaceutical makers and others. And it’s there where he’s not at his best, opens himself up to criticism of his core premise – and that criticism comes across as too logical to ignore.

The fly in Anderson’s free ointment is in the distinction between physical and intellectual goods. Free works best – indeed, its whole premise is predicated on – the advancement of Moore’s Law. As computer technology moves forward, the price for older technology falls, roughly at a rate of 50% annually. Eventually, Moore and Anderson argue, the price falls far enough to effectively round down to zero. Or, in the words of our engineer friend above, “for all practical purposes, close enough.” Hence, “free.”

For people in the information business – and, to some degree, we’re all in the information business these days – “free-dom” opens up worlds of possibilities for businesses to explore the economics of abundance, as opposed to “20th-century economics of scarcity.” Anderson extrapolates from this view to look at all the potential areas “free” might touch. And it’s when he moves away from information that he’s most vulnerable. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a strong criticism of Anderson’s notion in the New Yorker, largely skewering this far-reaching view. And, it seems clear to me, too, that if your business involves physical stuff, the effects of “free” likely won’t be as large or impact as many areas as Anderson suggests.

Still, this criticism – and others like it – largely miss the point. Even if you restrict Anderson’s premise to information alone, this “economy of abundance” worldview makes tremendous sense. A quick look, for instance, at how businesses that thought they had physical products, like the music business (records), travel agencies (tickets) and newspapers (um… newspapers) have been impacted by iTunes, Expedia and Craigslist shows how industries that rely on information can either benefit from – or be shoved aside by – those who understand how to put “free” to work.

All criticisms aside, Anderson has a winner here. He’s right far more than he’s wrong. And even when he goes wrong, he’s thought-provoking in a way few writers can match.

Buy the book. Or, if you prefer, don’t buy it. (You can get an audio edition, for free, from iTunes). But read it. Will Free change everything as much as Anderson says? Probably not. But, “for all practical purposes,” it’s likely to change enough to be worth the investing your time. And your money.

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Are you getting enough value out of your small business website? Want to make sure your business makes the most of the local, mobile, social web? thinks helps you understand how to grow your business via the web, every day. Get more than just news. Get understanding. Add thinks to your feed reader today.

Or subscribe via email.

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to follow Tim on Twitter.

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