2013: the web gets more proprietary. So do operating systems, mobile, everything

There may yet be an ITWriting review of the year; but in the meantime, the trend that has struck me most this year has been the steady march of permission-based, fee-charged technology during the course of the year, even though it has continued trends that were already established.

The decline of Windows and rise of iOS and Android is a great win for Unix-like operating systems over Microsoft’s proprietary Windows; but how do you get apps onto the new mobile platforms? In general, you have to go through an app store and pay a fee to Apple or Google (or maybe Amazon) for the privilege of deployment, unless you are happy to give away your app. Of course there are ways round that through jailbreaks of various kinds, but in the mainstream it is app stores or nothing.

The desktop/laptop model may be an inferior experience for users, but it is more open, in that vendors can sell software to users without paying a fee to the operating system vendor.

Microsoft though is doing its best to drive Windows down the same path. Windows Phone uses the app store model, and so does the “Metro” personality in Windows 8 – hence the name, “Windows Store apps”.

What about the free and open internet? That too is becoming more proprietary. Of course there is still nothing to stop you putting up a web site and handing out the URL; but that is not, in general, how people navigate to sites. Rather, they enter terms into a search engine, and if the search engine does not list your site near the top, you get few visitors.

In this context, I was fascinated by remarks made by Morphsuits co-founder Gregor Lawson in an interview I did for the Guardian web site. His business makes party costumes and benefits from a strong trademarked brand name. Yet he finds that he has to pay for Google ads simply to ensure that a user who types “morphsuits” into a search engine finds his site:

Yes, it is galling, it really is galling," he says. "We are top of the organic search, but we also have to pay. The reason is that some people like organic, some people like to click on ads. Google, in their infinite wisdom, are giving more and more space to the ads because they get money for the ads. So I have to pay to be in it.

It is also worth noting that when you click a link on Google, whether it is a search result or an ad, it is not a direct link to the target site. Rather, it is a link which redirects to that site after storing a database record that you clicked that link. If you are logged into Google then the search giant knows who you are; if you are not logged in, it probably knows anyway thanks to cookies, IP numbers or other tracking techniques. It does this in order to serve you more relevant ads and make more money.

Of course there are other ways to drive traffic, such as posting on Facebook or Twitter – two more proprietary platforms. As this internet properties grow and become more powerful, they change the rules in their favour (which they are entitled to do) but it does raise the question of how this story will play out over time.

For example, Lawson complains in the same interview that if he posts a message on Facebook, it will not be seen by the majority of Morphsuits fans even though they have chosen to like his Facebook page. Only if he pays for a promoted post can he reach those fans.

The power of Facebook must not be understated. One comment I heard recently is that mobile users on average now spend more time in Facebook than browsing the web and by some margin.

Twitter is better in this respect, though there as well the platform is changing, with APIs withdrawn or metered, for example, to drive users to official Twitter clients or the web site so that the user experience is controlled, ads can be delivered and so on.

These are observations, not value judgements. Users appreciate the free services they get from platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter, and are happy to give up some freedom and share some personal data in return.

The question I suppose is how much power we are ceding to these corporations, who have the ability to make or break businesses and to favour their own businesses at the expense of others, and the potential abuse of that power at some future date.

I appreciate that most people do not seem to care much about these issues, and perhaps they are right not to care. I will give a shout out though to Aral Balkan who is aware of the issues and who created indiephone as a possible answer – an endeavour that has only small chance of success but which is at least worth noting.

Meanwhile, I expect the web, and mobile, and operating systems, to get even more proprietary in 2014 – for better or worse.