We’ve become used to science fiction movies that transport us to adventures on new worlds at new frontiers, not so much epics as fables transposed onto the grand canvas of the universe. That’s not really a problem in the sense that such movies aren’t good: they are, after all, spectacular to behold, and such stories are able to paint with broad strokes grand ideas about morality and myth that resonate deeply but that would be hard to accept if set in a modern reality. What is often forgotten in the noise of those intergalactic epics, however, is that much of the very best science fiction is preoccupied with a different and no less important question: that of what it means to be human.
As I suspect is the case for many or most of my contemporaries, my first experiences with the Internet came not in the form of browsing with Netscape or the early versions of Internet Explorer but with America Online. AOL was much more than a browser. It was, rather, an integrated web tool – you could sort of describe it as a Microsoft Office for the Internet – the functionalities of which are usually today accessed through separate applications. There was the e-mail service, of course (how many of us started off with @aol.com e-mail addresses?), and, eventually, the chat service. This spun off at some point to independently become AIM, which was when I was in high school a defining feature of people’s social lives. You could browse the net, participate in AOL-only chat rooms and forums, play online games, and get immediate access to news and entertainment portals. In a way, it was a very primitive precursor to what we now think of as social networking sites – many (though not all) of these functions are replicated in Facebook and MySpace, which have their own chat and e-mail clients integrated into their broader social mission.
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, wondering why AOL failed. On the one hand, this does seem to be the most logical way to organize one’s internet experience. In the wake of the fall of AOL, all of the services that were integrated into it have had their functions filled piecemeal by other programs. I surf the web with Firefox, use Gmail and Gchat (which in turn replaced AIM) for e-mail and chat, Facebook for whatever it is that Facebook is useful for, nytimes.com for news, Tumblr for blogging, and Remember the Milk for task management. Google has tried to integrate many of these features with it’s iGoogle service, but it’s clunky and not very well-designed and, because of this, sort of a chore to remember to access. I don’t think that this means that the web is necessarily less efficient than it was when I used AOL, because it can’t be that inefficient when you’re on a broadband connection. Still, the AOL model seemed logical in a way that this fracturing doesn’t.
To some people, this fracturing is exactly what makes the Internet great – my brother practically froths at the mouth when people talk about Facebook because to him the essence of the Internet is its decentralization. By this point of view, the plethora of different services offered by a plethora of different platforms is what makes the Internet unique and infinitely competitive. The Facebook / AOL model runs counter to this by centralizing data and, thus, granting undue power to a single Internet service. This is a fair criticism – see, for example, this article from the New York Times addressing the idea of seeing Facebook as the Internet equivalent of a ‘utility.’ It’s a good analogy, as far as it goes: I, for one, find Facebook annoying and untrustworthy, but I’ve always come back to it because it’s simply too useful to abandon. This is interesting, because it’s only as useful as long as people use it – but it’s the social network that, somehow, has come to be the agreed-upon standard. Thus the idea of Facebook as a utility : you want to access that social network, and Facebook is how you do it, which means that you put up with all the bullshit and headache that the company invariably provides. Or, in other words, you sign up because it’s too useful not to.
Despite that danger, I continue to think that AOL had it right in the beginning. History has shown time and again that power tends to centralize, and as the Internet moves from infancy to maturity I don’t think it will prove any different. To extend the historical analogy to its most tenuous extreme, it’s not wholly inaccurate to think of the last twenty years – which is the period in which the Internet went from a fanciful engineering feat to a commercial reality – as the settlement of the New World, or of the frontier. All of a sudden, there was a hitherto-untouched and unknown world waiting to be filled, be that with blogs or e-mail services or file-sharing networks. Innovation ruled and everyone was riding by the seats of their pants a little bit; no one knew quite where things were going or how they were going to get there, but it was a world full of opportunity. If you were smart or aggressive or you had a good idea, you could carve out a niche and do something new and possibly even make millions of dollars. Hence, over the course of time, we had Photobucket, AOL, Blogger, Yahoo!, Google, YouTube, and all the rest popping up, providing a dizzying array of services.
It’s sort of taboo to say, but that period of time is over. Yes, it’s true, there are far fewer barriers to entry to the Internet, which means that there’s still space for innovation and we’ll still see new things pop up from time to time – think of the emergence of Twitter (which, yes, I am on, which fact has not changed the fact that it’s probably the most useless Internet service I’m aware of.) Nonetheless, the fact remains that we’ve entered a period of consolidation. That fact is somewhat betrayed by my earlier list of web services that I use : Google runs Gmail and Gchat and dominates the search market, and snapped up YouTube recently. Meanwhile, Facebook has emerged as the winner in the social networking wars, and Microsoft controls the way the majority of Internet users gets online via its Internet Explorer browser.
So where do we go from here? I’m convinced that it’s only a matter of time before the AOL model of internet access makes a comeback. In a way, AOL was way ahead of its time. Some smart designer or businessman looked at what the web was becoming, saw the fundamentals of what it would be used for, and realized that they could all be combined into one interface pretty smoothly. The only problem – and, I think, the reason that AOL failed – was that all of those technologies were still effectively in their infancy. This meant that AOL was essentially producing an efficiently-packaged collection of useful but incredibly immature products. That being so, of course people were going to dump their @aol addresses (or @hotmail, or whatever) as soon as Gmail appeared, seemingly fully-formed and at least two generations ahead.
I can’t say for sure that those services have achieved their maturity, because who knows where they’ll go in the future. They are, however, far closer to it than they were back in the late ‘90s or even five years ago. We’re facing not so much a technology problem as a design problem. Whoever can find the most efficient and effective way to synthesize these services into one product – and someone will – is going to have a tremendous leg up on the rest of the world. When that happens, probably in the form of an Internet-based operating system (and isn’t that idea apocalyptic) our idea of what computing and the Internet are will be fundamentally altered.
All indications at this point suggest that Google will be the company to do this, with their own operating system due to come out later this year. (At least, so Wikipedia tells me.) I wouldn’t count on it, however. As noted above, this is fundamentally a design problem, and Google, as my brother loves to point out, is an engineering-based company. That’s why iGoogle is so disappointing – it’s meant to aggregate the information for as many of your Google products as possible, but it doesn’t do it in a way that makes it easy to use. Microsoft – a company which has ridden the creation of affordable-and-good-enough products to dominance in the digital world – is a more likely bet.
That’s not so surprising, I guess. As I said above, this is civilization coming to the frontier, and Microsoft is the world’s great digital empire. That should make it the digital world’s most effective colonizer.
Gentleman of the Day:
Easily my nerdiest post ever.