Sept/Oct 2010

Apple’s launch of the iPad this past April prompted a curious headline from U.S.-based NPR asking, “Apple’s iPad: The End of the Internet As We Know It?” The story described how iPad customers feel safe inside of the iTunes app store, caring more about being protected from malware and other unwelcome content than about Apple’s controversial censorship of applications. Yesterday’s “walled gardens” have become today’s “gated communities,” in National Public Radio’s view.

Is the migration of mobile Internet users into restricted-content app stores “the end of the Internet as we know it,” or a fresh episode of “Back to the Future?” Paul Sweeting of GigaOM argues in favor of the first option, calling the iPad an “anti-Internet” device: “A platform for digital distribution in which all aspects of the user experience and functionality are under their (the content publisher’s) control.” I say it’s the latter, and that French author Alphonse Karr had it right when he said, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” or “the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.” The last 20 years have revolutionized how, how fast, and where we can access the Internet, yet today we see users flocking into new walled gardens in droves. After more than a decade of derision, walled gardens are back in.

But why? The stakes are higher. The freedom and independence that unfettered Internet access provides also gives rise to a new generation of threats, such as malware, identity theft, unauthorized surveillance, and loss of privacy. Resolving these problems may require us to interrupt our connectivity to reboot, delete, or reinstall apps; locate and install new protections; or repair or replace equipment. Our computers and mobile phones have become primary tools to communicate with friends, family, colleagues, and the social networks in which we participate. The personal cost of an outage grows steadily as convergence blurs the line between our phones and our computers, and our physical and virtual communities.

We can’t find the information we want. We often know what we want to do, but have no idea how. The product and user interface designers that brought us the extremely cool devices we have today still have a way to go to make them intuitively easy to use. Just the other day, a woman at my gym urgently needed to reach her bank, but had no idea how to call them using her new cellphone since her contacts had not been copied from her old phone. She waved the phone at me and said, “Is there an operator?” I told her she could dial 411, but her carrier would likely charge her $1.50 or more for the privilege. Eventually, she got through for free using 800-GOOG-411, after an impromptu training session from me.

Apps for banking, directory services, and local search simplify the process of finding the information we need to manage daily life, while leaving the technical complexities to the app developers. iPhone, iPod Touch, and Android users have demonstrated a preference to access information from the Internet via targeted apps versus wading through pages of mouse-print search results.

Internet search on a mobile device sometimes seems impossible; even when search results show up in readable-sized text, the user still has to scroll, select a link, click through to the linked page, and wait for it to download before discovering whether the information they are seeking is there or not. The experience is always tedious and often frustrating.

Apps come to the rescue by limiting search to a particular geography, type of business, or other category. One new search engine, Wolfram Alpha, solves the problem another way: Its “computational knowledge engine” attempts to directly provide the answer you’re seeking from a keyword search (it also answers math problems). For example, I searched for “zip code Chicago” using the Wolfram Alpha app on my Motorola Droid, which returned a table of the zip codes used in the Chicago area. In contrast, Safari and Google returned hyperlink lists, with the first link providing the answer I wanted.

There’s more to fear. Like search, access to social networking sites is increasingly mobile. Uploads from mobile devices flood onto popular social networking sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace. While online interactions can be rewarding, they can also open the door to a growing set of threats include phishing, financial scams, cyber-bullying, stalking, objectionable content, and more. The intensity of the threat increases when the undesirable content migrates from your computer into your pocket. “Certified” apps from a trusted app store can never fully protect against these threats, but yet, they “feel safer.”

In short, mobile Internet users are increasingly willing to let someone else broker or filter their Internet experience, and walled gardens directly fill this need. Expect to see even more of them, both carrier- or manufacturer-based app stores and subscription services. Also expect to see a counter-revolution in devices that unlike the iPad, which can only download apps from iTunes, can author, download, and run apps from anywhere. My Droid has a setting to allow the installation of non-Android Market apps, but I’m afraid to turn it on. How green is my garden.

Laurie Lamberth frequents both walled gardens and the unfettered Internet in order to stay current on all aspects of mobile content. Contact Laurie or learn about her strategic business development and marketing consultancy at

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