Is the open internet dead?

I was fortunate enough to get online in the mid-90’s. I wrote some terrible software to configure Dial Up Networking in Windows 3.1, and then sold it to a local ISP for years of free access.

At that point, consumers were rapidly adopting what I’ll call “open” technologies, including email, forums (USENET), messaging (IRC) and file transfer (ftp). The web was about to be littered with millions of consumer home pages, hosted by Geocities and people’s internet service providers.

Since then, nearly all consumer technology growth has moved from open to closed systems. Facebook and Google are “closed” in the sense that those companies exert total control of the platform, in a winner-take-most marketplace.

It’s hard to find recent examples of new, open technologies that had a lot of direct consumer adoption. The few I could think of are:

  • Firefox (which went mainstream in the U.S. around 2004)
  • Bittorrent (2005)
  • RSS (2005)
  • SMS (2008)
  • open video formats (2010, when YouTube added support)

Of these, I’d argue that only open video is thriving. Of the rest:

  • Firefox is suffering under pressure from Chrome
  • Bittorrent is being replaced by Netflix, Spotify and Hulu
  • RSS has been all but abandoned, replaced by twitter and weibo
  • SMS is under heavy attack by closed platforms like WhatsApp and Skype

Today, the fastest-growing platforms are all closed and controlled by large corporations.

Very few start-ups go public. This means that if you’re a successful new company, built on an open platform, you’re likely to be acquired by one of the incumbents and merged into their closed platform.

Is it still possible for open to win? Or is it time to give up, and search for a political solution?

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