In the early days of what people used to call the WorldWide Web, there was a pitched battle between the open Web and closed platforms, known as walled gardens. Most people in the 1990s went online by accessing something called a Web portal such as AOL, Excite, MSN or Prodigy, and the portals wanted to ‘own’ their customer’s web experience.
Even though the unique selling point of the Web was that it allowed you to connect to anything, the Web portals believed people would value a more restricted choice — one that the portals filtered and managed for their customers. They imagined this ‘walled garden’ would sustain a lucrative business model in which they could charge advertisers for access to those captive users.
It didn’t work out that way after the advent of Google, which made it possible to discover content on the Web more reliably than via the curated selections of the portals. But this outcome was not as obvious as we now know it to be with the benefit of hindsight.
Excite, once valued at $35 billion but later bankrupted, is said to have turned down the opportunity to buy Google’s search engine in 1999 for $750,000, after its student creators Larry Page and Sergey Brin unsuccessfully touted it to the leading portals in 1999 because they wanted to concentrate on their studies. Today, Google’s holding company Alphabet is valued at almost $700 billion.
More walled gardens
Fortunately for the rest of us, Larry and Sergey were forced to abandon academia and the open Web thrived, but only for a few precious years.
In 2008, Apple launched its App Store. The advent of mobile apps brought us a new version of the walled garden, in which every brand on the planet aims to engage with mobile users within the carefully controlled constraints of their own app, while Apple (or Google) collects a tax on all of the transactions that take place there.
Social media brought another variation on the walled garden model, honed to perfection by Facebook. That’s created a very lucrative business model for Facebook, while LinkedIn hasn’t done too badly either. Twitter not so much, but that’s mainly because its APIs have remained more open than the other two. But the open Web, although diminished, hasn’t gone away.
For many of us that lived through the battle between the walled gardens of the Web portals and the open Web, the shift to mobile apps always seemed like a retrograde step, while the rise of Facebook fills us with foreboding. We’ve grown used to the Web browser as a universal gateway to everything we need to find on the Web. We resent the notion of firing up a different mobile app every time we want to do something new, or of relying on Facebook’s algorithms to decide what we should explore next.
Now we’re seeing a new trend that reasserts the power of open connection. Conversational computing breaks down the walls around mobile apps and social media. Instead of visiting individual applications, we can access their functions by interacting with an AI-powered agent or chatbot from within a messaging app or a voice assistant. This conversational UI enables headless applications and circumvents those carefully curated gardens:
Thanks to the rise of AI-powered voice interfaces and messaging chatbots, conversation is becoming the new frontier of how people interact with computing …
What makes this significant is that we can get a response from the application without ever having to leave the conversational layer — and we can converse with multiple applications all from the same platform.
Previously, we had to actually visit each individual application to find information or complete an action. But now all of that workflow can happen in the messaging layer — and the underlying applications become ‘headless’ as those individual screens and command lines we had to use before now become redundant.
Conversational computing levels the playing field once again, putting the user at the center of the experience rather than the app or the social network provider. I was discussing this today with Uri Sarid, CTO of integration vendor MuleSoft, who says the days have passed when enterprises could talk of owning the customer:
You have to get used to the fact that you are not going to own the customer. You simply aren’t. In the new economy, there is no notion of owning the customer. Because the customer’s life is distributed across lots of applications, and that’s what customers will demand.
To own the customer, this is a lost battle. You’re in a trading relationship with other vendors for information, for context, for who gets a share of mind, as well as share of wallet. But the notion of owning, I think is very rare.
But what I realized as our conversation progressed is that this doesn’t mean the battle with walled gardens is over. It just means it has moved to a new frontier.
Vendor lock-in, customer choice
Already vendors are talking to me about how conversational computing allows them to own the customer’s workflow. In B2B environments, the ability to hone conversational relevance by understanding a specific domain and the relationships within that domain allows vendors to achieve a measure of lock-in.
The history of computing is littered with such battles between vendor lock-in and customer choice. Conversational computing will break down some walls but it may allow new ones to be built. The platforms that provide messaging and AI services will have an especially powerful control over conversational UI. It will be difficult for them to resist the temptation to use that power to create new walled gardens around our conversations.
We shall all have to stay on our guard to ensure the forces of openness prevail, rather than ending up locked in to new constraints imposed on us by the providers of this new medium. Conversational UI allows the messaging layer to become the modern equivalent of (or complement alongside) the Web browser — a neutral platform through which we can access all the rich resources of the global cloud.
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