A collective grumble went around the web in September when Twitter launched its new API, the application programming interface where other apps and web sites talk to Twitter to get its data. The main gripe is that Twitter is accelerating the closing down of channels responsible for its rise in the first place by effectively locking out many of the third-party tools used to access the service. Hardly the first to roll up the welcome mat to other developers’ apps to focus on its own services, Twitter’s move nonetheless may have been the start of a larger shift from “the fun web” to “the serious web,” or in business terms, from the “free Web” to the “internet of cha-ching$.”
Since the birth of the commercial web in the mid-1990s, Silicon Valley has been somewhat torn between the freewheeling culture of free services (as in ad-supported), free code (as in open source, thought this needs a large asterisk beside it), and even freemium business models (“come for the low-end product, stay and pay for the extended version”).
One of the fundamental pillars of its growth has been the idea that fun things can make money, eventually. But, as you may have noticed, like a timeshare pitch where no one is buying, the free snacks and drinks and nights in a beachside condo are being taken away. Google raised a stink by sunsetting its apparently popular free Reader RSS service (I was one who yelled, using it daily), Twitter has continued pulling back connections that other services used in favor of its own, even announcing it is killing off most versions of its own client in TweetDeck, which it bought in 2011, on May 7. And aside from the revocations, companies are getting testier about their own products, hesitant to lose control or be seen as frivolous (read: unprofitable) by investors and shareholders.
In a recent interview with the BBC about Leap Motion, a gesture-sensing device that has excited designers and future users alike with its ability to turn hand movements into on-screen actions, that company’s president was quick to point out that his product is “not a toy.” This was doubtless because Leap has just inked a deal with HP to be featured in its laptops, and didn’t want to be seen as another throwaway game accessory. Google has tightened the leash further with the highly restrictive terms on the Explorer edition of Glass, saying:
If you resell, loan, transfer, or give your device to any other person without Google’s authorization, Google reserves the right to deactivate the Device, and neither you nor the unauthorized person using the Device will be entitled to any refund, product support, or product warranty.
This takes Amazon’s approach to the Kindle, that it owns the content therein and can take it back, to another level. Mess with us, and we’ll take your toy away, in effect.
Why is the web going all Dickensian? Money is a big part of it. Many of the big players tried connecting to all and sundry, and with few exceptions, all of this kudzu of crosslinking and partnerships have fragmented, not aggregated, eyeballs. The need to get traffic from everywhere has made it tough to “own” the audience. It also means splitting revenue in some cases, or leaking it in others, which companies like Netflix have allowed in order to build brand, but reportedly may now restrict in order to bolster the balance sheet.
And if you are a new partner for one of these companies, like Twitter with Apple, Spotify, and Rdio for its new music service, or an acquisition, like Twitter’s purchase of We Are Hunted that enabled this service, you have to wonder how temporary your red carpet is. Or even who’s doing the rolling. In Silicon Valley, despite the eternal talk of synergies, all partnerships are ultimately zero-sum. Someone gets the zero, and someone gets the sum.
Twitter and Google will argue that control of experience is also key, making sure you see only one standard look, feel (and they’ll say quality) wherever their brand is sold, just like pretzels or toothpaste. All those dozens of third-party Twitter icons turned into a shabby flock, and now they would like to put just one bird on it, whether or not this actually restricts choice of experience, or funnels innovation down to one team of designers and engineers. But increasingly they need to know what you experience in order to wring maximum value from their research and development. Google’s invested a lot to be able to mine what you see, and where you go, on top of what you search for and whom you e-mail. Amazon wants to know what book passages you find interesting enough to highlight, even if seeing them dispirits the rest of us.
The modern connected device or service is a means to an end, a sort of not-so-bad honeytrap of monetization, not a free utility for the betterment of mankind. The commercial web is nigh-on 20 years old now, which is 20 years of fun and games, freebies and deferred returns. Recent economy aside, 20 is about the age at which is when some humans buck up and start thinking about the rest of their lives. Maybe Silicon Valley is putting away the beer pong and figuring out how it will pay its student debt. Welcome to the leaner, increasingly meaner, buzzkill web.