The Agenda

Chris Anderson on the Appliancization of the Internet

Many people have been mocking and deriding Chris Anderson’s latest essay in Wired, in which he argues that the web era is drawing to a close as more consumers access the Internet through a wide range of other applications. It is a convention of magazine journalism to exaggerate the gravity of minor fluctuations. On the other hand, the best journalists and thinkers have a knack for identifying new trends in these minor fluctuations, and it’s not obvious to me that Anderson isn’t on to something. 

In 2008, Tim Wu, author of the forthcoming history of media concentration and transformation, The Master Switch, wrote a very insightful review of Jonathan Zittrain’s polemic against the appliancization of the Internet:

During this decade, the fates of the Internet and the media industries have become as linked as Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty during their Swiss hike. The two industries are in the midst of an epic struggle between two competing economic systems that are almost as different as communism and capitalism. The first, old-school scale economics, is behind most of the media empires of the last century, from NBC to Paramount, and it still powers firms such as AT&T and News Corp. It is a model in which bigger is better, products are standardized, and integration is massive. It is the model that ruled American media–and indeed American industry–for most of the twentieth century. Its rival is a model premised on the economics of decentralized innovation and content creation that we associate with the Internet–loosely, the generativity that Zittrain is talking about. These new economics underlie every successful online firm from eBay through YouTube, and are what have provoked the Internet’s explosive growth. The collision of these two systems, I think, is where the future of the network will largely be found. It is, on one level, a clash between New York and Silicon Valley; but on a deeper level it is an ideological struggle over how information flows and who gets heard.

One interesting question is whether appliancization represents an opportunity for new media empires — think Facebook and Zynga — to rise. Anderson argues that the consumer’s desire for security and ease of use is creating a new opportunity for “walled gardens.” It could be that apps are a fad, and that decentralized approaches will win out because they can innovative faster and at lower cost. That is the coming conflict Anderson describes:

The Web won’t take the sequestering of its commercial space easily. The defenders of the unfettered Web have their hopes set on HTML5 — the latest version of Web-building code that offers applike flexibility — as an open way to satisfy the desire for quality of service. If a standard Web browser can act like an app, offering the sort of clean interface and seamless interactivity that iPad users want, perhaps users will resist the trend to the paid, closed, and proprietary. But the business forces lining up behind closed platforms are big and getting bigger. This is seen by many as a battle for the soul of the digital frontier. 

I’m hardly an expert on these issues, but I think Anderson is actually a very limited, modest claim, gussied up in magazine-friendly hyperbole, that has been widely misunderstood. 

My guess is that the great driver of appliancization in the years to come will be the rise of ubiquitous computing. Powerful smart phones are just a first steps towards a world in which most of our products, including our clothes and perhaps even sensors embedded in our bodies, will be in constant communication. It is going to take a long time to establish standards and protocols in this space, and there will be a huge first-mover advantage for firms that create reliable, dead-simple applications. The Internet will be the backbone of this new universe of services. But that’s about all we know. 

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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