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In the Matrix of Mobile, Linux Is Zion

Doc Searls

Issue #242, June 2014

In mobile we are losing the free world called the Web and the Net. How do we save it?

Already most of us spend more time on mobile devices than we do on desktops and laptops, put together. We also can do a lot more stuff, in a lot more places, on mobile devices than on computers. There were more than a million iOS apps on the shelves of Apple's store in October 2013 (techcrunch.com/2013/06/10/apples-app-store-hits-50-billion-downloads-paid-out-10-billion-to-developers), and I'm guessing there are at least that many Android apps on Google's shelves by now.

Meanwhile, app development on computers is slacking off—so is Web development, except as required to accessorize mobile apps. And on mobile devices, use of the Web is fading as well. According to Flurry Analytics (blog.flurry.com/bid/109749/Apps-Solidify-Leadership-Six-Years-into-the-Mobile-Revolution), the Web's share of mobile use dropped from 20% in 2013 to 14% in 2014. In “The Decline of the Mobile Web” (cdixon.org/2014/04/07/the-decline-of-the-mobile-web), Chris Dixon writes:

This is a worrisome trend for the web. Mobile is the future. What wins mobile, wins the Internet. Right now, apps are winning and the web is losing.

Moreover, there are signs that it will only get worse. Ask any web company and they will tell you that they value app users more than web users. This is why you see so many popups and banners on mobile websites that try to get you to download apps. It is also why so many mobile websites are broken. Resources are going to app development over web development. As the mobile web UX further deteriorates, the momentum toward apps will only increase.

The likely end state is the web becomes a niche product used for things like 1) trying a service before you download the app, 2) consuming long tail content (e.g., link to a niche blog from Twitter or Facebook feed).

He sees an end state that “will probably be like cable TV—a few dominant channels/apps that sit on users' home screens and everything else relegated to lower tiers or irrelevance”.

Those millions of apps are a forest of silos, growing on land that is privately owned or controlled by Apple, Google and Microsoft. Out on the streets, plains and hills of the civilized world, network connections are also provided by mobile phone companies, whose own silos are walled by usage limits and by tariffs at national borders.

Underneath it all, the Internet is getting harder and harder to see, understand and appreciate. Already mobile operators in India are offering free or cheaper plans just for Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter (www.medianama.com/2013/01/223-airtel-vodafone-idea-data-internet-rates-increase). To those operators, network neutrality means nothing. In fact, it never did, to any of the big operators. When he was Chief Scientist at BT, JP Rangaswami (confusedofcalcutta.com) said the core competence of phone companies is billing, not communications.

“Winning the Internet” should be absurd on its face, like “winning” sunlight or weather. But it isn't in mobile, which already has turned into a giant Truman Show (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Truman_Show). Inside that show, small app developers become suburbs of large ones—for example, by requiring logins through Facebook or Twitter, rather than using an identity from the open world, such as an e-mail address. That's the case with Shazam (www.shazam.com), a handy mobile app you can use to identify the music you hear. But if you want to see the music you've “tagged” with Shazam on the company's Web site, the only way to log in is through Facebook. As for getting that data back out, good luck.

Even apps that do let you have your data back also make the process costly or difficult. Fitbit will give you XLS and CSV data, but only with a “premium” subscription of $49.99/year. To get personal data gathered by Nike+ devices and apps, you'll need an external hack, such as fuel_dump (https://github.com/edrabbit/fuel_dump). Integrating that data is also a steep challenge. Some app developers will partner with other companies or open their APIs to allow data to flow between apps, but integrating personal data gathered by mobile apps on a personal computer requires real wizardry. The Muggles won't bother.

There are exceptions though. My favorite is Moves (moves-app.com), a $2.99 app from Finland that produces an “activity diary” of your walking, running, cycling and riding around in the world. Its Web site kindly provides data exports in CSV, GEOSON, GEORSS, GPX, ICAL, JSONKML and KML_GE. Within those are Activities, Places and Storyline. The only loophole in its otherwise respectful privacy policy is one that lets your data go to a third party if that party buys the company (www.moves-app.com/privacy). Still, privacy laws are much stronger in Europe than in most other places, especially the US.

Many ordinary activities that are open in the physical world are now silo'd in the virtual one. Take reading books, for example. Buy a hardcover or paperback book, and it's yours. You can pull it off your shelf and read it without any company intermediating the process or telling you what you can and can't do. This is not the case with most electronic books, which can be read only on proprietary machines using proprietary software, both of which are mostly Amazon's. My wife just got a new Kindle Fire, as a gift from the airline she's flown for more than two million miles. It's a nice gift, but using it feels like you're on an Amazon cruise ship with portholes looking out to the open world.

Even listening to radio on-line is an ordeal compared to what we had when stations could be found on radio dials. Although there are apps—TuneIn (tunein.com) and Wunderadio (www.wunderradio.com)—that try to replicate the dials of old (and it's not easy, given the vast numbers of stations streaming in the world), station owners feel the need to create an app for their own stations, or for fleets of them, to the exclusion of others. This is what Clear Channel (www.clearchannel.com/Pages/Home.aspx) does with iHeartRadio (www.iheart.com). It's a “dial” mostly of its own stations. To it, as to other large operators in the virtual world, the infrastructure that matters isn't the public stuff that's open and ownerless—such as the Net, the Web and e-mail—but what's private and controlled by companies with which deals can be done.

For example, right now at the top of the stream of tweets I see on Twitter is a “promoted” link—an ad—from Sprinklr. The tweet says, “FREE eBook: Without Infrastructure, You Can't Be Social”. The link goes to a page about “The Rise of Social Experience Management”, explained in a free eBook that requires giving up a bunch of personal data so you can become a qualified lead for whatever it is that Sprinklr sells. Note that the “infrastructure” is theirs. Not the Net's. Not the Web's. Not any space we all share. Just their space, which they own and charge rent to use.

Nowhere is mobile infrastructure more locked down and controlled than with the app stores. These completely private marketplaces are monopolies to mobile customers and monopsonies to app companies. As sole intermediaries, the stores get to charge what they want, which is a lot. Apple and Google both take 30% of what you pay for an app. So does Microsoft, but it drops its cut to 20% after sales of an app reach $25k. These are monopoly rents. Ask your shoe or grocery store what kind of margins it gets—or hell, even Amazon.

I believe the only answer is to equip ordinary individuals (Muggles, not just wizards like us) with independent tools for integrating and managing data and services—and better ways to exercise their autonomy, independence, freedom and agency in the world. I don't see any other way to break out of the Matrix (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Matrix) that the mobile world is becoming.

We need to start with general-purpose devices on which we can run anything we want. We still have that with some computers, but we don't with our mobile devices. There, with no meaningful exceptions, we are still vassals of Apple, Google and Microsoft.

Fortunately, Android is a breed of Linux. In the Matrix of mobile, Linux is Zion.

Wake up, Neo.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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