Why Closed Platforms Could Ruin the Web

Josh Catone

In the July/August issue of MIT’s Technology Review magazine, author and Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain posited that the future of the web would include a return to closed systems. “The future of the Web may be its past: an abandonment of open standards and services […] and a return to the gated communities,” he said. In order to avoid this future, according to Zittrain, developers must pressure the makers of the web’s future platforms to “abandon their ability to kill any apps at any time for any reason.” In that respect, could it be that the makers of the popular new application platforms — like Facebook, MySpace, Google, Apple, and Salesforce.com — should follow in the footsteps of Microsoft?

In the same Technology Review article, Salesforce.com founder and CEO Marc Benioff says that the web’s future “will all be about developer empowerment.” Benioff notes that the ability to “create and run powerful business applications in the cloud … will change the economics of the software industry forever.”

Indeed, the web’s new platforms are ushering in a new era of application development and deployment, prompting some to wonder if the web will replace the traditional computer operating system. However, along with the drastically lowered barriers to entry to create and deploy applications, developers may ultimately be sacrificing true control of their applications. And that might be a bad thing for users as well.

As Zittrain told Newsweek in May, the new platforms are essentially walled gardens where the platform creators have ultimate control. Platforms like Facebook’s, Google’s, and Apple’s iPhone, are “retaining the right just in case they need it to kill any app they don’t like and to control the flow of data,” he said.

Through historical accident, we’ve ended up with a global network that pretty much allows anybody to communicate with anyone else at any time. Devices could be reprogrammed by them at any time, including code written by other people, so you don’t have to be a nerd to get the benefits of reprogramming it. [But] this is an historical accident. Now, I see a movement away from that framework–even though it doesn’t feel like a movement away. [For example,] an iPhone can only be changed by Steve Jobs or soon, with the software development kit, by programmers that he personally approves that go through his iPhone apps store. Or whimsical applications that run on the Facebook platform or the new Google apps. These are controllable by their vendors in ways that Bill Gates never dreamed of controlling Windows applications. — Jonathan Zittrain

Indeed, Steve Jobs today confirmed the existence of the controversial “kill switch” that will allow Apple to kill any iPhone application it had already approved. However, the fact that they control which apps even make it through their approval process and can be installed on the phone (at least on phones that haven’t been unlocked) illustrates Zittrain’s point on its own.

On Windows, OS X, or Linux, for example, users have control over what applications are added or removed. But with the new breed of web-based platforms, the platform owner has complete control and can theoretically remove any application at will. In many ways this makes sense — in a cloud computing environment, a malicious app could have a drastic negative effect on other applications running on the platform in ways that it might not if a user were to install a bad application on non-web-based platform. But it also creates a tension between application developers and platform owners, and gives users the feeling that they don’t actually own the applications they’re using.

“In this new environment, the developers are at the mercy of the platform owners and while it’s not the end of the world, I think this is a riskier environment to run a business,” wrote Nick O’Neill in a recent post at Social Times. “While the shift to the cloud is ongoing and will continue to move forward, the relational logistics between businesses and platform owners still need to be worked through.”

O’Neill isn’t quite as pessimistic as Zittrain, but they’re both expressing a very legitimate concern: if the future of the web is closed platforms, that ultimately won’t be a good thing for the web. And Zittrain notes that it’s not just the platforms we’ve mentioned in this article so far. A whole new wave of web connected devices are introducing new, closed platforms: the Xbox, Tivo, etc. As the computing moves off of our computers we’re increasingly moving toward an environment where a few platform providers are the ultimate gatekeepers brokering our experience.

Image via Divine Harvester.