Walled Gardens

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Yesterday I put up a new post  on how to optimize your mobile app’s URI scheme.  The post is mostly technical but touches on a few important points – notably the fact that the mobile app ecosystem is a fragmented series of walled gardens.  This is in sharp contrast to the free and open web where anyone can add content and anyone can access it.

If you feel the way I do about free speech, feel free to insert your own rant here about the privatization of the (virtual) commons.  This is the digital equivalent of town squares where free speech was legally protected being replaced by malls where a rent a cop will firmly escort you off the premises if you try to do any sort of outreach.

This situation causes a number of problems, not least of which is the fact that it allows Apple and Google to play a gate keeper role and determine what content people will have access to by rejecting apps that fall outside their comfort zones.  How we got here is a long story and a lot of people have written on it in more depth than I will, but for what it’s worth I blame

  1. Poor mobile browsers which take too much real estate on a tiny screen and don’t have the functionality many apps require crippling the potential of mobile web applications.
  2. Apple, who used their considerable influence early on to push people into app-based experiences since they earn a percentage of all in-app transactions.

Interestingly, Google was very public about pushing the mobile web as the primary medium for content, despite the fact that (like Apple) they earn a percentage of all in-app transactions on their platform.  As for why they took this approach, it’s worth noting that taking content out of the web and walling it off inside apps hurts Google by damaging their position as the gatekeeper of the world’s web traffic.  So their defense of a free and open internet isn’t exactly altruistic.

The big change on the horizon is that Spotlight search, baked into iOS 9, promises to break those walls down… at least a little.  By indexing in-app content and making it searchable Apple finally gets to challenge Google in their core search engine business in the same way that Google has given them such headaches by challenging the dominance of iOS.  The two companies are slowly but surely becoming mirrors of each other.

In the meantime at least, the launch of search engines that can break down the silos and find content across apps marks a major turning point in the evolution of the mobile ecosystem and promises to fundamentally change how users find content.  For marketers this is a very big deal.  It solves the immediate problem of “how do I sell my widgets when people can’t even see them without downloading my app.”  It also provides a chance that less well known app developers who don’t have millions to spend on advertising can leverage good content to get discovered.  These are both good things for the health of the market but do nothing to redress the free speech concerns that matter to the rest of us.

Stay tuned folks, this is going to get interesting.