Tim O'Reilly and the Cassandra act

There are real threats O'Reilly didn't mention. ESPN, for instance.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive on

Tim O'Reilly delivered a dire warning at his Web 2.0 Expo over the weekend.

The Web is under threat from closed applications, from Google and Apple to Microsoft and Amazon, and from content vendors like News Corp. building moats and raising high the drawbridges.

I felt great sympathy for Tim, reading his words. I issued similar warnings over the dot-boom, starting from when I launched A-Clue.Com as a weekly newsletter in 1997, having been laid off from CMP's NetGuide.

Watch out, be wary, I wrote. This Internet commerce thing is just a bubble. It's going to pop and all will be carnage.

Turns out there is little value in being Cassandra (right, from Wikipedia). When the dot-boom burst, which I date from AOL's purchase by Time-Warner, it did me no good at all.

I went from having 17 writing gigs to zero. I had joked during the boom that I would gladly write for nothing -- in 2002 and 2003 I did. Ha-ha.

The point is that, while I was right, I was powerless to do anything about it.

Tim O'Reilly is not powerless.

And the first thing he needs to do is get straight about the issues.

  1. The "threat" from Google and Apple is a feature, not a bug. Mobile telephony has been wholly proprietary from its birth 25 years ago. There is not and never has been a mobile Internet, just whatever data carriers wished to let pass on their networks.
  2. It has always been possible to erect paywalls and registration walls. The New England Journal of Medicine and many science journals hide much of their content behind registration. Publishers like England's The Spectator are constantly trying to get paid.
  3. Clouds like those of Amazon and Google may only support software their owners choose to support. Trying to make clouds vanilla discriminates against rocky road and tutti-frutti.

There have been proprietary threats to the Internet practically since the moment the Web was spun. That's what the browser wars were about. Microsoft was going to add proprietary hooks to Internet Explorer and we'd all be gutted like fish on a line.

Since the Web was spun, there have also been elite audiences, narrow niches for whom payment and registration is a business advantage. Not everyone wants the hoi polloi coming in at all hours so they can spend the next day digging quarters out of the couches. Velvet ropes hold a business model.

So long as I'm not forced to buy News Corp. content, in other words, there is no threat from News Corp. hiding its face from me.

On the other hand, there are real threats O'Reilly didn't mention. ESPN, for instance.

When ISPs are charged for content, and those ISPs have monopolistic control of their subscribers, that's a real problem. ESPN has quietly engineered this. Don't like sports but need a cable modem? You are buying ESPN360 whether you want to or not. Every month some of your ISP bill goes to Disney (ESPN's owners).

I'm sure News Corp. and every other big content provider would like a taste of that gravy. And it would do little good for subscribers to try and disconnect Comcast en masse -- where you gonna go?

It's the proprietary control of the last mile, and the use of that control to force users into buying things they may not want, that is the big threat to the Internet. That's a feature of the wireless world, but we can change it. It's a product of the Bell-cable duopoly, but we can change that, too.

Focus on the real dangers, Tim. You have the power to make change if you focus on what's real and use your influence.

Otherwise you're like Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, or hundreds of other working journalists. It must be wonderful to always be right, she's told.

No, she replies. It's horrible.

And if you can't do anything about it, it is.

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