OpenGardens manifesto: Part two

Following on from OpenGardens Manifesto : Part One Here is part two

Before we start discussing the impact of OpenGardens, lets first see what do we mean by the terms ‘walled gardens’ and ‘OpenGardens’.

Walled Gardens

What is a walled garden? What are the ‘bricks in the wall’ i.e. the elements that make up a walled garden?

A walled garden is any mechanism for a provider (not just a Mobile operator) to restrict the user experience by confining the user to a specific region / space as defined by the provider. The rationale is – the user is served better and the service is more profitable for the provider. In an Internet/Mobile environment, this can often take the guise of restricted browsing but has other facets as we see below.

From a developer perspective, a walled garden could mean ‘restricted access’, i.e. – your application in some way cannot access all customers OR the provider’s application has access to some features that you cannot access. These restrictions can be commercial or technical.

Thus, walled gardens can be a set of restrictions created by a provider and placed on users or applications. These are aimed at confining the user to a set of features controlled by the provider.

Walled gardens are not new. One of the best-known instances was the early AOL (www.aol.com). On an extreme case, in the early days, users could not email others outside AOL! (remember this was only about eight years ago). However, the early users liked these restrictions since there was the perception of ‘the big bad world out there’ and AOL was deemed to be a trusted provider. As users matured, they realised that the restrictions were often a hindrance and ultimately, there are lot less restrictions now on AOL. However, even today, AOL users have a different experience of the World Wide Web. It’s debatable if it’s better of not – but it’s certainly different.

In the mobile data industry, walled gardens have been associated with the Mobile Network Operator. The Mobile Network Operator has some elements that lend it considerable power. These include

a) A large customer base

b) Knowledge of the subscriber’s location

c) Billing relationship to the customer and

d) Customer services and marketing reach

There are others especially on the voice side but these elements are critical for data applications. In addition, on the Operator’s portal, the Operator has the ability to control the positioning of the application on the menu, which is yet another ‘Brick in the wall’.

Extending the concept even further – Operators are not the only ones in the walled gardens game. Brands are often in collusion. A friend uses the colourful and insightful expression ‘Elephants mate with elephants’. This means the large content providers of the world may well have done deals with the large Mobile operators leaving little scope for the smaller player. There is already evidence of this with some content deals in Europe. Many in the industry blame the Mobile Operators for creating a walled garden. Walled gardens restrict the potential slew of applications that could be possible if everyone were allowed to create any application and users of a system had total freedom to choose any service inside or outside that system.

The issue of walled gardens first arose with WAP (Wireless access protocol) phones, which are used to “browse” content. It arose due to a specific legal situation with a European Mobile operator who prevented users from changing the default settings on their phone. This means, users always started with a specific WAP site (i.e. home page) as directed by the Mobile Operator and further they could not change the home page itself. While this model was commercially appealing to the Mobile Operator and also the advertisers, it was not conducive to the small developer. A developer successfully appealed against the Mobile operator and won. In retrospect, the whole issue seems irrelevant in the case of WAP – because for various reasons, consumers never used WAP sites in large numbers.

So, do walled gardens exist? While the ‘hardcoded WAP home page’ does not, there are indeed other ways to create restrictions. A true OpenGardens(the philosophical opposite of the walled garden – as we shall see below) ecosystem would exist if ‘all applications had a level playing field’. Where ‘menu positioning’ seems to be the most obvious ‘choke point’, there are other ways to cripple applications belonging to external developers specifically if they are denied equal access to certain resources for example location information.

Finally, as we leave the topic of walled gardens it’s important to remember that even when they do exist – they do not stand the test of time. Coming back to AOL, it appears that walled gardens become irrelevant as the medium matures. We believe this will happen in the Mobile data industry, i.e. it is not possible to predict in advance as to what content/applications a user may want. Not forgetting, of course, that user preferences change over time.

OpenGardens

OpenGardens is the philosophical opposite of a walled garden. The phrase covers more than the ‘on portal/off portal’ issue. Rather, we define OpenGardens as a ‘level playing field’ or a ‘viable ecosystem’ for all providers in the industry.

In the context of the mobile data industry, ‘Openness’ can mean many things

whatisopen.bmp

a) Openness of access for the customer (i.e. the ability to access any content from their Mobile device).

b) Openness of platforms (for example a level playing field for third party applications as compared to the provider’s applications) or

c) ‘Open source’ as defined by http://www.opensource.org/

These three aspects are inter-related. In its ultimate form, this approach can be viewed as ‘API enabling’ a Telecoms network. API (Applications Programming Interface) is the software that enables service provision by the Mobile operator. The external application can make a software call via the published API, thereby creating a ‘plug and play’ ecosystem. The API model is also called by other names such as ‘networked model’, ‘Bazaar model’ or ‘web services model’.

OpenGardens – Not a subsidy model

While OpenGardens leads to a ‘viable ecosystem’ – it is not an altruistic venture. There is a view that Mobile Network Operators should fund emerging content companies/creative media companies developing content for mobile phones. Indeed any investment in this industry is good and the idea thus has some merit.

But .. we don’t believe ‘Beatles to BT’ would work i.e. if the Beatles had been starting out – would they have approached BT(British Telecom i.e. an Operator) to sell their music? What would happen if they did? Would there be a Beatles – in the first place?

‘Beatles to BT’ would produce a flat,corporate ‘anthem’ rather than a vibrant, rich symphony. Thus, we don’t believe that any business entity should be forced to fund(subsidise) another entity.

Running a Mobile network is a business – not a charity. The Operator is in the business of making money – not in altruistic pursuits. Any form of ‘grant’ to emerging companies leads to a dependent companies. Such companies are rarely creative and rarely break free from the mother ship.

So, what’s the right thing to do? Our suggestion is to simply ‘create a viable ecosystem’ i.e. create an ecosystem where a thousand flowers bloom. No one knows which one will succeed but at the outset they need a fertile plot of land. This means doing less. Making technology cheaper. Making partnerships easier to set up. Picking up the ‘Amazon’(www.amazon.com) model of being a ‘marketplace’ (which is not the same as a ‘pipe’).

So, OpenGardens is really nothing more than a ‘level playing field’. Crucially, the revenue and partnership models are such that they benefit all players in the ecosystem.

One would argue – why should the providers create a ‘fair’ ecosystem? Is it in their interest to do so? We say emphatically – ‘yes’!. Look no further than the most important element in the value chain – she who pays the bill – the customer. The customers want more choice. Greater the familiarity with technology, more the aversion to be patronised (AOL being the case in point).