Walled Gardens vs. Networked Effects


"Walled garden" is the term that industry uses for online communities that capture users inside a Web that is anything but world-wide. The services inside the walled garden are the ones the service provider chooses and they almost always involve increased revenue for the service provider. When I was at Excite\\@Home, we had a project to build set-top boxes for our cable partners that included a cable modem, but kept users inside a walled garden of for pay services. These walled gardens were for cable subscribers who didn't sign on for broadband services. The idea of walled gardens is far from dead. You live with them everyday on your phone. I hardly ever use the network services on my ATT phone because its all about shoving ringtones and wallpaper down my throat rather than letting me get to the information that I need.

In the Sept 16 issue of the Gillmor Gang, Ray Ozzie (of Notes and Groove fame) talks about how hard it is to create collaborative environments on portable devices for a similar reason. The operating systems on portable devices are too fractured and the interactions too limited to support network effects. The applications being built for mobile devices are mostly used for personal productivity rather than collaboration--and that's just on the bigger platforms like Palm.

One of my biggest complaints about broadband providers today is that they put their users in walled gardens, of sorts. These are not the nearly closed off containers of the mobile phone companies, but rather gardens with one-way mirrors. You can GET anything you like, but you'd better not want to produce any content yourself. Comcast's view of the world is that they produce services and you consume them. The world would be richer without these artificial boundaries and restrictions. Blogging is proof that people want a two way experience on the net.

In some ways, it makes me wonder how the Web even came to be. When you think about how the natural tendency of business is to create sugar-coated, weak imitations of real networked environments, you realize what an amazing place the Web is. Its not that companies haven't tried to take over the Web and turn it into their own private venue, but it just hasn't worked. A combination of user resistance and the shear size of the phenomenon kept it from happening.

The edge vs. center debate is related to this as well. Are edge devices just large caches for things that the center of the network maintains or the other way around? Ozzie notes that the iPod is a cache for what's in iTunes, which is a cache, in a sense, for what's out on the net. Then there's services like Flickr that reverse that. My computer is the canonical source for my photos and Flickr is just a cache of what's on my computer.

I think businesses have to be extremely careful to preserve the environments where network effect flourish. They're too easy to kill. There may be too much altruism required in many cases. My primary reason for supporting UTOPIA and other community broadband plays is that the critics are simply wrong: private industry will not build the kind of networks that we need if left alone.

The same is patently true in mobile networks. The possibilities are so much greater than what we're getting right now. I'm not advocating government intervention---the FCC would likely do more harm than good---but I know what we've got now simply isn't all that we need. I hold some hope that mobile will fix itself as infrastructure costs come down as long as the FCC provides access to the airwaves. WiMax could, for example, help solve this problem as long as it can get bandwidth outside the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands. Otherwise, its just crowding in with phones, Wi-Fi, and microwave ovens.