Opengardens, walled gardens and mobile web 2.0

This article discusses the impact of walled gardens on web 2.0 and mobile web 2.0

Open systems

Historically, major technology vendors have used the philosophy of “walled gardens”, often with considerable success. However, over time, we see walled gardens crumbling all around us and being replaced by Open systems and Open source. If ‘customer lock-in’ was the byword of the older players, web 2.0/mobile web 2.0 are all about relinquishing customer control.

Openness is a philosophy as opposed to a specific technical standard. For instance, AOL, although deemed a walled garden, uses RSS feeds to open up their ecosystem. Similarly, Microsoft uses an open standard called SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) for Internet telephony instead of using its own standard or another proprietary standard.

‘Openness’ itself can mean many things

- Openness of access for the customer : The ability to access any content

- Open APIs/ Open platforms: A level playing field for third party applications as compared to the provider’s

applications and the ability for any developer to use a published API(Application programming interface) or

- ‘Open source’ as defined by

There are many areas on the web where open systems are playing a role (and will play an even greater role in future). These include elements like Identity, Open Media, Microcontent Publishing, Tags and so on. What is apparent is: Open systems are fast becoming pervasive over the web. The Mobile ecosystem cannot remain in isolation locked up from the rest of the world for long.

OpenGardens and Walled gardens

We (Ajit and Tony) first coined the phrase ‘OpenGardens’ when we wrote the book late in 2004. OpenGardens is the opposite of walled gardens.

A ‘walled garden’ is a mechanism to restrict the user to a defined environment i.e. forcing them by some means to stay within the confines of a digital space. This restriction, often defined by a single company, is a means of exercising control and supposedly maximising revenue.

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

A walled garden is any mechanism for an entity (not just a Mobile operator) to restrict the user experience by confining the user to a specific region / space as defined by the entity. 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. In conversational terms, walled gardens are deemed to mean any restriction placed on users or applications, which are aimed at confining the user to a set of features controlled by the provider.

Within the Mobile data industry, a Mobile operator has some elements that lend considerable power i.e. a large customer base, Knowledge of the subscriber’s location, Billing relationship to the customer and Customer services and marketing reach

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

Extending the concept even further – Mobile operators are not the only ones in the walled gardens game. Brands are often viewed as a safe bet – especially branded content. 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.

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 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.

Certainly, Mobile operators and developers have a different mindset. One person (working for a Mobile operator) referred to a quaint phrase ‘revenue leak’ – and no prizes for guessing who they think the revenue is ‘leaking to’.

While most Mobile operators genuinely don’t know how to tackle the brave new world of applications development, there are other factors at play here. Some Mobile operators are concerned about pricing a service ‘wrongly’ in their view. Their fear is – the service will be popular but not profitable. Hence, a further reluctance to relinquish control since a global ‘free for all’ access tends to reduce prices. The sad by-product of this limited thinking is: the service is never launched at all!.

In addition, there are some issues which are controlled by neither the Mobile operator nor the developer – such as legal and statutory guidelines. Thanks to a certain measure of control, the Mobile data industry has been spared the worst excesses of the Internet such as SPAM, copyright violation, privacy violation etc. As the industry matures and adopts more guidelines – the question is that of ‘intent’. Is control a sign of maturity or is it a smokescreen? Clearly, the Mobile operator cannot flow against the rising tide of the Internet and the global flow of information i.e. the Internet is the driver to mobility and not the other way round.


The phrase ‘OpenGardens’ evokes a variety of responses, ranging from the open source evangelist who gets misty-eyed thinking of ‘Linux on every Mobile device’ to the Mobile operator who insists : ‘There are no walled gardens!’

OpenGardens is not an anti Mobile operator stance. But that does not mitigate the fact that the mobile network operators are the biggest culprits.

OpenGardens/Open systems primarily means ‘open platforms’ when applied to the mobile network operator. By ‘openness of platforms’, in the Mobile applications context, we mean the Mobile operator’s infrastructure. An OpenGardens ecosystem is a holistic/inclusive environment, which could foster the creation of next generation utility led (as opposed to existing entertainment led) Mobile applications. These applications could often span multiple technologies/concepts and are created by ‘assembling together’ a number of existing applications. In web 2.0 terminology, that’s a ‘mashup’.

Technologically, 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’.

Mobile web 2.0 and OpenGardens

It is in this context that we need to look at OpenGardens again. Specifically, as web 2.0 and mobile web 2.0 become prevalent because Web 2.0 is all about harnessing collective intelligence. To harness collective intelligence effectively, we need a large ‘body of intelligence’ i.e. a large body of people.

Walled gardens, closed standards, proprietary systems hinder web 2.0 / collective intelligence in two ways: firstly by reducing the number of participants in an ecosystem and secondly by limiting the activity of the participants who are in an ecosystem. The Web is one big ecosystem. By fragmenting the web through proprietary standards, we create smaller silos within the one large ecosystem.

Will walled gardens work?

Will walled gardens work? Lets come back to AOL.

Walled gardens are not new. One of the best-known instances was the early AOL. 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.

It appears that walled gardens do not stand the test of time and become irrelevant as the medium matures. We believe this will happen in the Mobile data industry.

A note about the image: The image shows a perplexed leonardo – a genius trapped in a ‘walled garden’. It was the original motif I used for OpenGardens