Apple is the new AOL and new Microsoft, and whoa that can't be a good thing

Two astoundingly good analyses hit the InterWebs over the US holiday weekend: John Battelle's "Is The iPad A Disappointment? Depends When You Sold Your AOL Stock" and Kroc Camen's "Will Apple Embrace the Web? No." If you're a geek, developer or investor and read nothing else today, it should be these two posts -- and this one, of course. :)

Battelle and Camen come at the topic from different directions, but end up at the same destination: The Web will be easier to use on iPhone OS devices, but Apple will confine consumers and developers to its, ah, walled apple grove. I expressed similar sentiments in posts "Steve Jobs' 'Thoughts on Flash' is just smoke" and "Clash of the titans: Apple, Google battle for the mobile Web." But Battelle and Camen offer better, while different, explanations.

Quick summary: Apple is the new AOL because of iPad, which offers a safe, easy way to consume content without venturing out onto the vast Information Superhighway. Like an earlier computing generation, iPad users (hereafter referred to as iPadders) can travel the Infobahn's slow lanes. Apple is like the new Microsoft because of the browser. Like Internet Explorer to Microsoft, WebKit and Safari aren't core to Apple's business, which will lead to the browser's stagnation.

Timing for both posts is appropriate in context of Apple shipping 2 million iPads in about 60 days. Battelle is seemingly stunned. Five months ago, he predicted that Apple's tablet would "disappoint." He's not the only geek to do so. In early April, I wrote about "7 people who are returning their iPads" -- geeks or long-time Web users one and all. After buying an iPad to test, I sold mine last week. I also didn't like AOL, and the online service is Batelle's explanation for iPad's early success. He admits being wrong about iPad in the short term but asserts: "I still believe I'll be entirely correct in the long term, in particular if Apple doesn't change its tune on how the iPad interacts with the Web."

Battelle Likens Apple to AOL

The iPad's AOL connection is the reason. He writes: "The iPad is a revelation for millions and counting, because, like [AOL founder] Steve Case before him, Steve Jobs has managed to render the noise of the World Wide Web into a pure, easily consumed signal. The problem, of course, is that Case's AOL, while wildly successful for a while, ultimately failed as a model."

Will iPad fail? Early sales would suggest not. Failure will hinge on iPhone OS and whether or not Apple confines the Web to its grove. The Web killed AOL. Battelle explains:

It was the link that made the Web what it is today, and it's the link -- reinterpreted in various new strains -- that drives innovation on the Web still. The link is the synapse between you, me, and a billion other humans -- and the signal (dare I say, a signal one might consider third party data) which allows a million ideas to flourish.

So let me ask you one question, right now: Can you link to an app on your iPad? And I don't mean a link to download the app on iTunes, folks. I mean, can you create an ecosystem of links, deep into your iPad application(s), links that connect your particular activity stream inside that app with other streams, other links, and other intentions across the web? In ways that create new values, both predictable and unpredicted?

The answers to Battelle's questions are several Nos. I gave up iPad because it doesn't deliver the real Web. But who else will feel so confined? Facebook has about 500 million subscribers, despite its mostly walled garden and bazillion privacy problems. Facebook is in many ways more like AOL than Apple. By Battelle's reasoning, Facebook should fail and MySpace shouldn't have declined.

I agree with Battelle's AOL-Apple comparison, but not necessarily his conclusions about the future. Apple and Facebook business strategies are very much against the openness that made the Web so successful; yet both companies are hugely successful building walled gardens. They are the TV networks of the InterWebs. Apple CEO Jobs talks open in his battle cry against Flash, but his company's actions show openness ends with his interests.

Camen sees Microsoft in Apple

Hold that thought, because it relates to Camen's argument. Seemingly anyone and everyone, including Microsoft, is trying to kill off Internet Explorer 6, which security issues and non-Web standards approach are the butt of ongoing criticism. But it wasn't always that way. "Do you remember when Internet Explorer 6 was released?" Camen asks "It was hands-down the best, most standards compliant browser at the time." He's mostly right.

I would never call ActiveX standards anything. But nitpicking aside, he has an important point to make: IE was not core to Microsoft's business. Once Microsoft won the browser wars, there was no more need to invest -- Camen might call it waste -- development on IE. He sees similar future for Apple browser development. Camen writes:

What happened with IE is indicative when companies come to lead in a market that is not itself their core business interest, especially when that market directly threatens to obsolete that very core business interest of the company in question. Microsoft had to kill browser innovation otherwise it would directly affect Windows and Visual Studio sales if people could use whatever OS they wanted and whatever developer tools they wanted to participate on the web. Can you see where I'm going with this? I am about to make a statement that will remain controversial for years to come and [John] Gruber, if you're reading this, you can file this under 'claim chowder' for later reference. Safari will be the next IE 6.

The Web is not Apple's business. The Web sells iPhones and iPads and iPhones and iPads sell Macs for developers to use XCode to develop native apps -- because native apps offer what the Web can't. And that Web, if left unchecked, threatens to remove the necessity to be tied to iPhones and iPads and Macs and XCode and the App Store. If the Web gets the same capabilities as native apps, why would you buy a Mac to code in XCode and be restricted to the App Store's brick-wall approach to customer support and Apple's changing whim of what is acceptable and what is not?

The Open Web is Offensive to Apple

Battelle and Camen come to the same conclusion: The open Web ultimately threatens Apple's business model. I'll state it differently:

1. AOL's success wasn't just about an easier online experience. AOL also wooed content providers to its closed network, in part because so many consumers signed up for the service. Once AOL reached a critical mass of subscribers, content providers and application developers were sure to follow -- and they did, but doing things AOL's way. It was AOL's way or the Information Superhighway. Many partners chose the former. Apple's situation is quite similar, when looking at iTunes, which is the content and applications hub for iPhone OS devices.

2. Microsoft didn't just win the browser wars, it won developers. Microsoft feared that Netscape would establish the browser as an alternative platform to Windows. But the real threat was the Web. Microsoft delayed the Web threat, but couldn't prevent it. Apple may be the creator of WebKit and may talk HTML5, but ultimately an open Web threatens its mobile platform much the way it did (and does) Windows. Apple is pushing an application stack that it solely controls. Such a model can't coexist with an open Web, particularly one where, say, Google can bypass the iTunes App Store by releasing browser-based HTML5 apps.

Camen writes, and I agree:

Essentially, as long as the iPhone and iPad are able to retain mindshare, developer support and an unignorable marketshare then Apple can shape the lowest common denominator for the Web (even if that low is very high, like the best HTML5 / CSS3 support) just as Internet Explorer has been and largely remains the lowest common denominator for the web as seen through desktop computers.

The open Web is offensive to Apple's business model. Apple already is cuing up behind AOL and Microsoft, trying to control and contain the Web and developers along with it. They failed to contain the Web. Can Apple succeed? I sure as hell hope not. I like variety -- it's the spice of life, as the saying goes. Don't you like variety? Apple's walled grove means diet of one foodstuff: apples. Apple pie, apple crumb cake, apple fritters, apple pizza, apple pasta, apple, apple, apple, Apple. You can eat anything you like as long as Apple is the main ingredient. Bon appetit.

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