Monday, October 29, 2012

Rise of the App Barons

First Era of Computing: The Wild West

What we call "apps" have been around as long as computers have been around. It's a computer's primary existence. The computer runs the Operating System, which is a platform for launching various applications. That's all a computer is and ever has been: a platform for applications.

For most of the computing revolution up until fairly recently, you the user decided what to put on your computer and even where to get that software. In the earlier days, you bought that software from a brick and mortar store just like you would a book. You got it home and popped in the CD or floppy, which was your interface to the world.

Then, with the rise of the Internet in popularity it became possible to populate your computer with software and never touch a physical piece of media. You visit a web site-possibly a huge one like Amazon- click a button, and the software is on your computer.

Second Era of Computing: Here Come The Gatekeepers

We are now firmly into what I could call the second era of computing. The evolution and commoditization of computer applications was evolving quite steadily towards central clearing houses like Amazon and But then Steve Jobs created what I believe his "real" innovation was, which is that of "app middleman."

It was a stroke of pure genius. So was making an "app store" so easy to use, someone's mom would be comfortable going into the store and making a purchase. It turned out to be a cash cow for Apple and later Google.

Does the app suck? The app baron still gets paid. Is it over-priced? Doesn't matter, the app baron still gets paid. It's a beautiful situation for a large corporation to be in. And not only that, as the gate keepers, the app barons get to decide what can even be in the store.

What's Next?

I'm actually not against a company having its own app store. In fact, I think it's a great idea. To me, the computing landscape should be like a shopping mall, where each user shops among the various stores and brings home a bag of the software they need.

What I am against is these companies playing gatekeeper to a device I own. Having to "jail break" my device just to get its full functionality is unacceptable to me. And I don't think I'm alone. It's ironic that in this age of openness and connectivity, companies are constructing artificial barriers to limit access to a lucrative platform, i.e. your computing device.

With Microsoft recently wiggling itself into a gatekeeper position the writing is on the wall. It's pretty clear to me that the Third Era of Computing is going to be the battle for control over your device, with all of us as pawns in that battle.

Will the current push by many for more openness overcome the push by the big corporations for more control ($) and give us the consumer more power, or will we lose whatever little bit power we currently have?

I have been building software for a living for more than 20 years, and I'm seriously leaning towards jumping ship for the open source movement. It's the sharing and openness I crave- the free flow of knowledge. I'm definitely not against people making their living selling software, but its the app store as a mechanism for control that worries me.

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