The future of walled gardens

In the physical world, walled gardens are pretty places we visit, pay an entry fee, then enjoy the attractions therein. It is well understood that people often only value what they have to pay for and walled gardens capitalise on that. While there, we may buy coffees or snacks from the captive facilities at premium prices and we generally accept that premium as normal practice. Charging an entry fee ensures that people are more likely to stay inside for longer, using services (picnic areas, scenery, toilets etc) they have already paid for rather than similar ones outside that may be free and certainly instead of paying another provider as well.

In the content industry, the term applies to bundles of services from a particular supplier or available on a particular platform. There is some financial, psychological, convenience, time or other cost to enter and then to leave. Just as with the real thing, they have a range of attractions within that make people want to enter, and once there, they will often access local service variants rather than pay the penalty to leave and access perhaps better ones elsewhere. Our regulators started taking notice of them in the early days of cable TV, addressed the potential abuses and sometimes took steps to prevent telecoms or cable companies from locking customers in. More recently, operating system and device manufacturers have also fallen under the same inspection.

Commercial enterprises have an interest in keeping customers within their domain so that they can extract the most profit from them. What is less immediately obvious is why customers allow it. If people want to use a particular physical facility, such as an airport, or a particular tourist attraction such as a city, or indeed a walled garden, then they have to put up with the particular selection of shops and restaurants there, and are vulnerable to exploitation such as higher prices because of the lack of local choice. There is a high penalty in time and expense to find an alternative. With device manufacturers, the manufacturer is in an excellent position to force customers to use services from those they have selected, and that enables them to skim charges for transactions, sometimes from both ends. The customer can only avoid that by using multiple devices, which incurs a severe cost penalty. There may be some competition among apps within the same garden, but all are subject to the rules of the garden. Operating systems are also walled gardens, but the OS usually just goes with the choice of device. It may be possible to swap to an alternative, but few users bother; most just accept the one that it comes with.

Walled gardens in the media are common but easier to avoid. With free satellite and terrestrial TV as well as online video and TV services, there is now abundant choice, though each provider still tries to make cute little walled gardens if they can. Customers can’t get access to absolutely all content unless they pay multiple subscriptions, but can minimize outlay by choosing the most appropriate garden for their needs and staying in it.

The web has disappointed though. When it was young, many imagined it would become a perfect market, with suppliers offering services and everyone would see all the offerings, all the prices and make free decisions where to buy and deal direct without having to pay for intermediaries. It has so badly missed the target that Berners Lee and others are now thinking how it can be redesigned to achieve the original goals. Users can theoretically browse freely, but the services they actually want to use often become natural monopolies, and can then expand organically into other territories, becoming walled gardens. The salvation is that new companies can always emerge that provide an alternative. It’s impossible to monopolize cyberspace. Only bits of it can be walled off.

Natural monopolies arise when people have free access to everything but one supplier offers something unique and thus becomes the only significant player. Amazon wasn’t a walled garden when it started so much as a specialist store that grew into a small mall and is now a big cyber-city. Because it is so dominant and facilitates buying from numerous suppliers, it certainly qualifies as a walled garden now, but it is still possible to easily find many other stores. By contrast, Facebook has been a walled garden since its infancy, with a miniature web-like world inside its walls with its own versions of popular services. It can monitor and exploit the residents for as long as it can prevent them leaving. The primary penalties for leaving are momentarily losing contact with friends and losing interface familiarity, but I have never understood why so many people spend so much of their time locked within its walls rather than using the full range of web offerings available to them. The walls seem very low, and the world outside is obviously attractive, so the voluntary confinement is beyond my comprehension.

There will remain be a big incentive for companies to build walled gardens and plenty of scope for making diverse collections of unique content and functions too and plenty of companies wanting to make theirs as attractive as possible and attempt to keep people inside. However, artificial intelligence may well change the way that networked material is found, so the inconvenience wall may vanish, along with the OS and interface familiarity walls. Deliberate barriers and filters may prevent it gaining access to some things, but without deliberate obstruction, many walled gardens may only have one side walled, that of price for unique content. If that is all it has to lock people in, then it may really be no different conceptually from a big store. Supermarkets offer this in the physical world, but many other shops remain.

If companies try to lock in too much content in one place, others will offer competing packages. It would make it easier for competitors and that is a disincentive. If a walled garden becomes too greedy, its suppliers and customers will go elsewhere. The key to managing them is to ensure diversity by ensuring the capability to compete. Diversity keeps them naturally in check.

Network competition may well be key. If users have devices that can make their own nets or access many externally provided ones, the scope for competition is high, and the ease of communicating and dealing directly is also high. It will be easy for producers to sell content direct and avoid middlemen taking a cut. That won’t eliminate walled gardens, because some companies will still do exclusive deals and not want to deal direct. There are many attractive business models available to potential content producers and direct selling is only one. Also, as new streams of content become attractive, they are sometimes bought, and this can be the intended exit strategy for start-ups.

Perhaps that is where we are already at. Lots of content that isn’t in walled gardens exists and much is free. Much is exclusive to walled gardens. It is easy to be influenced by recent acquisitions and market fluctuations, but really, the nature of the market hasn’t really changed, it just adapts to new physical platforms. In the physical world, we are free to roam but walled gardens offer attractive destinations. The same applies to media. Walled gardens won’t go away, but there is also no reason to expect them to take over completely. With new networks, new business models, new entrepreneurs, new content makers, new viewing platforms, the same business diversity will continue. Fluctuating degrees of substitution rather than full elimination will continue to be the norm.

Or maybe I’m having an off-day and just can’t see something important. Who knows?

 

 

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