aNewDomain.net–Facebook recently cut off messaging competitor Voxer’s access to its Find Friends data. Until then, about 30 percent of Voxer’s new users used Facebook’s Find Friends feature to quickly identify people to chat with. It turns out that Voxer recently received a lot of venture capital financing.
Facebook’s strategy is to provide a development platform and encourage others to build applications that enhance the reach and value of Facebook – a symbiotic relationship. But, if the application catches on and Facebook decides to duplicate it, it cuts the original service off, zapping the folks who brought the app in and made Facebook what it is.
Does this sound familiar? In the early 1990s, WordPerfect dominated the world of personal computer word processing and Microsoft DOS with Windows 3 was the dominant operating system.
The following quote is from an email Bill Gates sent to Microsoft colleagues in 1994:
“I have decided that we should not publish these [Windows 95 user interface] extensions. We should wait until we have a way to do a high level of integration that will be harder for likes of Notes, WordPerfect to achieve, and which will give Office a real advantage.” … “We can’t compete with Lotus and WordPerfect/Novell without this.”
(Ironically, I think Gates was wrong. Word, with its GUI heritage from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, would have eaten WordPerfect’s lunch regardless – a message I delivered in the mid-1980s, while a consultant to WordStar, the dominant word processor before WordPerfect).
Microsoft repeated the same pattern with email, Web browsers, and utility software.
You might say that Microsoft and Facebook have no obligation to offer an open platform to their competitors and that folks who build a business that depends upon another company do so at their own risk. You would be right if there were competition for the dominant platforms, but Facebook got its social graph data in exchange for offering a free service that nearly a billion people use.
It’s a walled garden. The individual users are happy. Facebook is happy.
But, the Internet suffers.
We have a tragedy of the commons. Each individual user is better off for the exchange, but is the sum of those exchanges good for competition? For consumers collectively? For the economy? What sort of trajectory does it put the Internet on – toward a few big companies that control it all?
The Internet got to be what it is with clean interfaces, standards, cooperation and specialization — “do what you do best and link to the rest.”
We need an economics and market system that discourages tragedies of the commons. Just as the economy has to route around monopolies, the Net has to route around walled gardens.
PS — if you really want to geek out the Microsoft precedent, check the Groklaw archive on Gates’ deposition.
Based in LA, Larry Press is a professor of information systems at California State University at Dominguez Hills and a senior editor covering tech issues at aNewDomain.net. Check his Google+ profile to contact him or see what else he is up to: http://bit.ly/viXqr4.