Part 1: How your user experience changes for the worse as the open web gives way to walled gardens
I hang out in two circles. Open web enthusiasts that are lamenting its demise, and regular users who are happy with their fast snappy apps and couldn't care less.
These groups have a hard time talking because the "open web" too often comes across as an idealistic abstract notion and most end users just don't tangibly feel the bad consequences. In fact, they're often happier with the snappy, vertically integrated experience of closed app ecosystems.
My goal here is to make it more palpable how everyday apps, searches and tools get worse when we let big centralized companies take over the web, and explore some paths for reversing it.
What is the open web?
Most definitions of the "open web" I've seen are either too technical to be accessible or too abstract to be usable and getting gridlocked in this debate often means watching from the sidelines while actual user welfare slowly diminishes.
Three characteristics that proponents of the open web will agree to in roughly descending order are:
- Ease of publishing: anyone can publish to it freely or at least very cheaply, and is on the same footing with a globally accessible URL
- Ease of consuming: Net neutrality — ISP's dont cut deals with corporations to make some websites load faster or cheaper than others.
- Ease of remixing. You can see the source code. Content licenses and tools are permissive for derived works.
Detour: A framework to break down how people use the web
I want to focus on the user experience point of view. To do this, I'm going to introduce a framework that divides up all our internet usage into two categories.
You have an unfamiliar problem and to solve it you either need to learn something new, or purchase goods or services to solve it
- e.g. taking out a mortgage, a health problem in the family, where to go to college, what skill to acquire next.
- Unfamiliar problems are solved in large part with acquiring new knowledge, not just products or services.
- These user journeys start with search engines — Google predominantly and **a lot of the time solving them is spent on web pages**.
- When people are looking to solve unfamiliar problems, **revenue is typically higher-margin**, because users can't price the products and services as well.
- These ultimately transition to being familiar problems.
- e.g. being entertained, keeping the dog food in stock,
- These are best solved with apps like Email, Netflix, Twitter, DTC subscription boxes, etc.
- Solving these needs has a very well defined user interaction journey. You open the app you're familiar with and follow its standard flow.
- Revenue from people solving familiar problems is typically lower-margin and there's more competing products.
How we're spending our time on familiar vs. unfamiliar problems
Using time spent in apps vs mobile web on mobile is a way to proxy how we divide up our time. We spend most of our time on familiar problems but have a constant trickle of unfamiliar problems.
Unfamiliar problems are better solved with the open web
Think about the last time you did some research, e.g. choosing a phone plan. You asked your friends, compared on forums, looked at the official sites, scribbled some notes and made a decision. Even if this journey was quick, you likely traversed a dozen services and products to do this.
Unfamiliar problems have less constraints, require creativity to solve, and thus are better suited to open solutions. Some other things that work for the open web here
- comparing alternatives is easier.
- changing modalities (e.g. from reading to video) is easier.
Familiar problems stand to benefit more from tight vertical integration
Take Spotify for example. It solves the very familiar problem of listening to music. Spotify just works better as an app because
- Controlling the user experience end to end makes for smoother flows.
- Having all the user data kept with Spotify allows for better recommendation algorithms.
- Spotify can easily hand off between devices.
- It can run in the background
Sure, the web can do a bunch of these things, but they're simply not first-class considerations in the open-read-close workflow that the browser was designed for.
But the open web can be better for familiar problems too, especially for breaking monopolies
Let's look at Amazon. Initially you start buying there because of their "always low prices" and the convenience of 2 day shipping. Over the years you keep shopping there, until you've forgotten that
- free 2 day shipping is now near universal
- amazon isn't often the cheapest place
On the Amazon app, you see the story around the product that best serves Amazon, not the buyer. Meanwhile, over on Insight you can use the web version and do all these things the app can't.
... and not just that
How solving unfamiliar problems gets harder too
Unfamiliar problems are solved in large part with acquiring new knowledge, not just products or services. The incentives to freely create knowledge that solves unfamiliar problems is lost as the web closes down.
- Google increasingly takes a larger percent of ad revenue as they start extracting answers from pages and showing them on their search result pages.
- Publishers have to either a) paywall their content (e.g. NYTimes) or b) subtly sell products (everyone standing a Wirecutter alternative), or c) ask for donations in order to survive.
- Only a few big name publishers survive. Google and Facebook start sending them more of the traffic that's left, and since domain rank plays a big part in Google's ranking, those that survived assimilate more power and rank better.
- and search engines seem more littered with SEO junk and less actually useful information year over year.
In conclusion, and where we fit in.
And that's how your user experience slowly degrades, and that's why we stand to suffer as users if we give up the ability to remix software that the web brought us and closed apps are now taking away.
Our goal with Insight is to give the web (in particular on mobile) a fighting chance by exhibiting how it can be more powerful than a closed ecosystem and give more control to the end-user. We do this by showcasing the web's infinite extensibility and customizability for common use cases like search, shopping, reading and cooking.
Insight's advanced features will soon only be available to Pro subscription users but for a limited time we're opening up lifetime free beta access if you download it via TestFlight below.
Coming up in part 2
- What parts of the open web probably should die off?
- A pragmatic path for what's left of the open web to thrive again.