Thursday, April 16, 2015

A return to walled gardens

Back in the last century we laughed at walled gardens, saying they were the bad old past, and how the web, with search and openness would kill them off.

The original walled gardens, like AOL,com saved you from the dangers and confusion of the world wide web by offering a carefully curated selection of content, like news, travel, sport, shopping and more.  However search engines like Google made it easy to find the best content in each area, and people realised that the web wasn't all that dangerous, and they'd rather choose their own content from everything out there, rather than what AOL or the other portals thought they'd want to see.

Now walled gardens, or things like them, seem to be back in fashion, particularly on mobile, where a pre-determined content, with no need for fast connectivity to move to a new place, can be a good idea.  It also works well in-app, because the app is tailored to your device more efficiently than a web experience, particularly with Apple.

The often-used stat that apps make up 86% of time spent online reinforces this - if you're spending time with apps, it's easier to stay within the app rather than to move onto the wider web, so apps are trying to drag content into their property rather than to send people off elsewhere.  (Years ago portals (briefly) didn't like search because it took people away from the site.  In the desktop world Google used to boast about how little time people spent on Google).

Here are some examples of the new walled gardens -

Snapchat's Discover area, with content pre-loaded by professional content providers seems to be working well for them, and ads that appear in the content generate revenue for both the content creator (like MTV) and Snapchat.

Twitter's cards, with extra content like the summary to a story, a video or a voting link being kept within Twitter.

Child-friendly Apps like YouTube Kids, and Vine for Kids - again we mocked AOL for being so child-friendly in the 2000s, but it makes a lot of sense, and many apps are naturally self-contained.

Finally, Facebook can be seen as 'the new AOL' (something people have been saying for at least 5 years) especially with the recent rumour that it was suggesting some news companies stories to be hosted in Facebook.  Again, it cuts down on navigating time, and a recent survey suggests that a lot of people don't think they are on the internet when they're on Facebook...  As with the Snapchat model, the content creator would share ad revenue with the host.

"Facebook intends to begin testing the new format in the next several months, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions. The initial partners are expected to be The New York Times, BuzzFeed and National Geographic, although others may be added since discussions are continuing. The Times and Facebook are moving closer to a firm deal, one person said.
To make the proposal more appealing to publishers, Facebook has discussed ways for publishers to make money from advertising that would run alongside the content."

Finally, it's the idea of a closed system, or a simpler system, that some users seem to like.  The ultimate manifestation of this is Amazon's 'commerce' button - a physical button that is being tested in the US that lets Prime users re-order items like washing tablets by just pressing a button that can be stuck to the washing machine.  Or another example - the 'Netflix' button now appearing on physical TV remotes for smart TVs, making it easier for people to watch Netflix.

If walled gardens are now back in fashion, what else from the early days of the web is likely to return?

Update - Chris Dixon of Andreesen Horowitz on Open vs Closed systems (He thinks open will ultimately win)

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