Apple, Its Control Over the iPhone, The Internet, And Yes, The Metaverse
An essay on platforms, power, prosperity, principles, and profits.
Chapter One: The Creation of Today’s Internet and the Needs of Tomorrow’s
One of the neat things about the internet is who created it, why, and how.
Throughout the 1960s to 1990s, the foundation of today’s internet was built through a variety of consortiums and informal working groups composed of government research labs, public universities and independent technologists. These typically not-for-profit collectives typically focused on establishing common standards that would help them share information from one server to another (i.e. messages or files), and in doing so, make it easier to collaborate on future technologies, projects and ideas.
The internet’s quirky provenance is responsible for many of its best modern attributes. Today, everyone can create content on the internet, everyone is technically capable of accessing everything on the internet, and every web page on the internet can connect to another without the user needing to change browser, device or client. This flexibility, interoperability and universality isn’t by decree - there’s no Head of the Internet mandating the right to create, host or access/connect to a website.
Instead, this is a byproduct of the internet’s open standards, programming, markup languages and so on. These ensure that a user doesn’t need to pay for a web browser or to load a website, nor does the owner of a website need to pay for the code used by their website. Services like Zoom also work because they leverage actively maintained standards that are free to use and designed to support any device. Every device maker needs to support these standards in order to have happy customers. Some of us now recoil against aggressive data collection, ad insertions and tracking, but this is partly because we don’t need to give these up. The use of standards, such as HTML, means that browser extensions can block ads or tracking. We may be willing to give up data for a free service, but the Internet’s makeup means we don’t have to.
The benefits here are hard to overstate. But just imagine, for example, how the internet might differ if it had been created by multinational media conglomerates in order to sell things, serve ads, harvest user data for profits, or control your end-to-end experience (something AT&T and AOL both tried and failed to pull off). Downloading a .JPG could cost money, with a .PNG costing 50% more. Teleconferencing software might have required the use of a broadband operator’s app or portal (e.g. Welcome to your Xfinity Browser™, click here for Xfinitybook™ or XfinityCalls™ powered by Zoom™). Websites might only work in Internet Explorer or Chrome - and need to pay a given browser an annual fee for the privilege. Or maybe users would need to pay their broadband provider extra fees to read certain programming languages or use a given web technology (“This website requires Xfinity Premium with 3D Rendering”). Microsoft was sued, in part, due to the bundling of Internet Explorer with the Windows OS. If a corporation invented the Internet, would they have even allowed competing browsers (the literal gateway to the web)? Would they allow the user to do whatever they wanted on these browsers, or access (and modify) whichever sites they chose? Regardless of the specific differences, it’s likely internet penetration would be lower, as would usage and associated commerce/value.
88% of US teens surveyed have an iPhone. 90% said their next phone will be an iPhone. Both are highest ever. Yesterday analysts opined that Apple will not grow market share after LG’s exit from the market.
The web’s cross-platform, standards-based and non-profit origins are inseparable from the internet’s rapid growth, the trillions of dollars in companies that have been founded over the past 30 years, and the positive societal impact of these companies (e.g. a drop in the cost and increase in the quality of communications, the reduction in gatekeeper power, lowered transaction fees, etc.).
Today’s heavily conglomerated internet giants remain mindful of the fact that open APIs, common standards, exportable data, etc., all help grow both the internet technology acceptance model and, in most cases, their own bottom lines. But these companies are less concerned with how the overall market grows than their share and control of this growth. Technology companies, almost by definition, prefer that the market build on top of or through them than have new entrants build around or in competition with them. As a result, the same companies that emerged thanks to openness tend to reject these principles where they might undermine their strategic position.
This isn’t an unusual disposition for a for-profit company, but the implications are particularly powerful in digital markets. In the offline world, free market economics enable robust competition that typically delivers the best products, variety and prices for consumers, and moderates the power of the strongest market players (if only due to diseconomies of scale). Online, incredibly powerful network effects and zero-cost marginal revenues/distribution has enabled dominant platforms to push back against the open nature of the internet, forcing consumers and creators to use them as universal intermediaries, and subduing standard market forces.
Right now, we are on the cusp of the next internet. The terms used for this future vary and the degree to which you believe in one label or vision is not particularly relevant. And the technologies to design, enable and support the fullest version of this are as far from the capabilities of 2021 as the 1990s Internet is from us today. But what matters is that a growing share of our time will be spent within virtual spaces and with virtual goods — for education, work, health, politics and leisure. Sometimes these spaces and goods will be purely virtual, other times virtual twins of physical ones, and sometimes augmented reality. For related reasons, a growing percentage of our income will be spent on virtual assets, goods, experiences — many of which we’ll be able to sell, trade, share, use or improve. And of course, enormous new industries, marketplaces and resources will emerge to enable these opportunities, with novel types of labor, skills, professions and certifications invented to serve them.
There’s no way for this future to be developed as the original internet was. The US government and public research institutions led the development of the information superhighway in part because few in private businesses understood the commercial potential of a World Wide Web, but also because these non-profits were essentially the only entities with the computational talent, resources and ambitions to build it. Conversely, all of today’s mega-tech companies are deep believers in this future internet, and are best positioned (via resources and talent) to build it.
The most important impediment today is Apple. Although no company has done more to propel the last 15 years of the internet, its policies are unlikely to produce the most prosperous overall ecosystem and do not lay a strong groundwork for the “next Internet”. Instead, Apple is inhibiting this future Internet. And it does so via tolls, controls, and technologies that not only deny what made and still makes the open web so powerful, but also prevents competition, and prioritize Apple’s own profits.