The Apple / AOL Analogy

OK, so a couple days ago I posted this Twitter message:

The iOS/AppStore model is essentially making the same appeal as AOL (vs. open internet) in the early 90′s – safer, polished, easier to use.

Unfortunately, the constraints of Twitter just make it too difficult to really explain or discuss that kind of thing, so I thought I’d flush out what I meant by it here instead.

What prompted this initially was I was thinking back to the early 90′s when I had a NetCom (“real” internet) dial-up account. Almost everyone else I knew personally who was “online” was using either AOL or some similar competitor (CompuServe, etc.). More specifically, I was thinking about how I used to try to explain to people why the “real” internet was so much better than the AOL walled garden, and mostly I was remembering (having flashbacks to) how utterly unsuccessful those attempts were.

People still weren’t sure whether WWW stood for wild, wild west or world wide web; all they “knew” was that there were dangerous hackers waiting to infest their computers with all manner of virii and use them to launch nukes at Russia after draining their bank accounts. Not to mention the porn. And, perhaps the most frightening of all, the people talking to each other unmoderated, uncensored, and anonymous. But most importantly of all they “knew” that AOL was “keeping them safe” from all of this. (of course all these things they “knew” weren’t accurate, but the important part was that they believed them).

But even those who weren’t put off that way (intimidated away from the open net and towards AOL) still had little interest in the open internet. Another common reason was the usability. AOL was insanely easy to get up and running relative to a true internet account. AOL’s content was polished and clean; the internet was extremely messy and for the most part ugly (relatively speaking). AOL was the gatekeeper, because you don’t want “just anyone” putting stuff out there with no “quality control” – that would be a disaster.

Truly the only real, substantial and present (at the time) appeal of the “true” internet over AOL in those days was one thing: freedom. The problem is that for most people, that isn’t a benefit they can see, feel, or imagine in the moment. Its biggest payoff really comes in the long run, but that’s not a trade-off most people are willing to make for ease of use and beauty today.

However, the primary encouraging thought that occurred to me was this: it didn’t actually matter that I wasn’t able to sway many people over to what I saw / foresaw as the ultimate better solution, because all of the advantages that a free platform offered DID eventually cause it to surpass the walled garden approach, and looking back now, I think it’s easy to see that it was the inevitable conclusion.

Yes, it took a long time. Yes, most web sites still sucked. Most (going by raw numbers / percentages) still do. Yes, there were/are dangers out there to be dealt with. And (perhaps most importantly), all along the way the “average user” never really cared much at all about the conflict, or was even aware that it existed. In spite of all those things, enough people, motivated by both creative opportunity and commercial gain, embraced the open platform and eventually made the walled garden model it was competing with obsolete.

Basically, the point of all of this was that it is both futile and unnecessary for me to try to convince people to see things from my point of view in regards to issues like the Apple App Store. It doesn’t really negatively impact me much personally, and most people just don’t care, and they don’t need to. I think there is too much to be gained by the success of the open alternative for it not too eventually overtake the ultra-closed / restrictive model. So I’m not really going to worry about it too much anymore, and I don’t think anyone else really needs to either. Awareness is still important, but for the people who aren’t, it’s no big deal. They’ll eventually get off of AOL once the plug has been pulled and/or the rest of the world has moved on / passed them by. :-)

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2 Responses to The Apple / AOL Analogy

  1. Dan Cameron says:

    I agree in the long run but the analogy only works for me if I consider the iPhone as a stepping stone to educate users on how to use ‘smart’/feature/app phones, since AOL was needed to decipher how dial-up > email and IM worked. Now that the address bar is common knowledge and internet connection is so easy ( including networking hardware advances ) AOL isn’t needed; not because they found themselves locked into a walled garden that they once loved but they didn’t need it anymore because of ( tech/personal ) progression and cost.

    100% of the users I know got rid of AOL because of the cost, since they purchased cable or DSL and an AOL cost $10/15month, not because they felt cramped, many of them felt that they still needed AOL because of the ease-of-use and features they couldn’t find anywhere else.

    As far as I can tell, your analogy would only work: if people left Apple’s ecosystems because of cost, which they already do; and/or they left because of technology progression ( i.e. DSL, cable ), e.g. the phone implant that Apple forgets to make.

  2. JB says:

    I see your point, but I don’t think that cost is the main issue – or I should say not the *first* issue – that led to their downfall. The reason people were willing to go without AOL is because they eventually realized that the “real” internet was delivering better content and a better experience, AND that they could get that cheaper without AOL.

    In other words, gradually all of the content they cared about online was shifting towards being found in the open internet and NOT the curated walled garden model that AOL started with.

    Once that happened, the internet became where the *real* value was, and AOL became just another way to get there.

    Only *then* (after the walled garden lost value) price became the most important issue and they were destined to fail.

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