Walled Garden or Garden with a View?

Scott Francis
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Much has been made, recently, of Apple’s “Walled Garden” – a term borrowed from AOL’s days of providing a restricted internet experience. And many authors go on to describe Apple as being “un-web-like” or providing a walled garden – exactly analogous to the old AOL days. Batelle writes:
Next week, Apple will make any number of announcements at its WWDC. I’m hoping the company will announce that it is tacking away from its walled garden approach with the iPad, but I’m not going to hold my breath. Apple makes gorgeous products, but ultimately, I think any product which rejects the web’s core value of connection will simply disappoint. But more likely than not, it’ll be a year or two before that becomes apparent.
Look, Batelle is far more qualified to write about Apple than I am.  But I think the analogy is backward.  When AOL was providing its walled garden, PC’s were the wild west – you could install any application you wanted on them, and there was very little accountability by the software providers, and very little ability for a consumer to verify authenticity or lack of viruses or spyware.  But the Internet experience via AOL was “curated” or walled garden in nature.  It was often explained as protecting people from the wild west of the Internet.  As Batelle says, ultimately the model failed. But Batelle claims that this was because of the link.  I would contend it was because of the browser as well.  The browser did “enough” to protect you from the perils of the Internet, eventually (let’s not review all the security issues in early browsers), as the browser was increasingly sand-boxed.  Essentially, the consumer’s risk from browsing the web today is a lot less than it in the early days of browsing, and users have learned to be more careful about what they click on.  In fact, in some ways, services like bit.ly have an opportunity to provide curated links that are somewhat guaranteed to not contain spyware or other harmful material. So why is the analogy to AOL’s walled garden backward?  Because Apple sells devices, it has the opportunity to provid an ecosystem where the web is wide open, but the applications are curated.  To me, this is much more like a garden with a view.  The applications are verified and safe: and for my productivity applications this is what I need.  And the web is open to use as desired – and since I never know where a link will take me, this is also what I need. And the applications aren’t restricted to only Apple-developed apps – anyone can submit an application into a great distribution channel. Many, including Batelle, claim this has been tried before and failed… but I’m not convinced it has been tried before (certainly not by AOL). There will be competition from even more harshly controlled ecosystems (feature phones), and from completely open ecosystems (Android).  But the outcome isn’t a foregone conclusion yet, because it is a different game. (I’ve also heard the argument that one cannot tinker on the iPhone or iPad… but the tinkerers can spend a whopping $99 for Apple’s development tools, and tinker all they want with custom software.  It isn’t free, but it is hardly a king’s ransom.) Parting thought:  I wonder if Siri, a recent Apple acquisition, will be the foundation of interesting inter-application linking within the iPhone/iPad ecosystem.  Batelle laments the lack of deep linking within applications in the iPhone ecosystem, but an API built around Siri’s approach, or the Mac’s “Services” registry, offers interesting open-ended alternatives, without forcing Apple to give up their curated app store.

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