Welcome to the walled garden world, again

Reuters had an interesting story last week, in which it reported that Google is pondering an Internet service to help consumers shop online and take advantage of same-day delivery in a bid to stanch the loss of Web traffic to Amazon.com.
Written by Edwin Yapp, Contributor

Reuters had an interesting story last week, in which it reported that Google is pondering an Internet service to help consumers shop online and take advantage of same-day delivery in a bid to stanch the loss of Web traffic to Amazon.com.

The story, originally reported by The Wall Street Journal citing sources familiar with the matter, noted that the Internet search leader was in talks with major retailers and shippers including Macy's, Gap and OfficeMax to set up the service.

The wire agency said Google might be casting a wary eye on the popularity of Amazon.com's Prime service--which offers free two-day shipping for US$79 a year in the U.S.--fearing it would entice the Web traffic it depended on away from Google.

Back in the day when I was working in the telco industry, vendors preached that all operators would do well to have what is known as a "walled garden" strategy--a term used to refer to a customized portal developed by an operator to keep its subscribers within its borders, akin to how a garden wall keeps people from looking out.

The rationale behind this, as I remember it, was that the more control the operator had over its subscribers, the more it could directly interact with them, thereby, commanding their loyalty, and ultimately, subscriber revenue...or, so goes the argument.

Using this strategy, operators went all out to make this their mantelpiece in their mobile marketing campaigns, with several big global operators pitching their walled garden as the best in the business.

But as these walled gardens grew, and as subscribers got tired of what was on offer within those walls, frustrated users began "climbing" out of that wall in search of more open content available via the open Web.

This led to a revolt as subscribers began shunning the walled-garden approach in favor of a more open access to Web sites they wanted to visit and the walled-garden approach met with an unfortunate demise.

So it's with interest that I note that Web 2.0 players are trying the same approach with their Web sites in their quest to try to keep consumers--in this case, Web customers, which are far bigger than mobile ones--within their borders.

So what has changed to necessitate this trend?

Well, firstly, in the old days, walled gardens were doable as there was not much content on the Web that was specifically customized for the mobile screen size. Secondly, mobile devices did not have what I term the "3Ps"--power, poise and precision--that today's mobile ecosystem have. Power in terms of processing power and network speeds; poise in terms of elegance of design and the "attractability" of today's smartphones and tablets; and precision in terms of their how advanced the software ecosystem that enables the billion dollar app game to survive has come.

So it's understandable that mobile phones of the yesteryears could be kept within the walled garden and the expectation of consumers could be easily met.

In the new Web 2.0 world, consumers crave, and indeed even demand so much more from their operators and service providers. Things now are pretty much open and there were hardly any walled garden concepts espoused except the few such as Yahoo, which has been trying to be all things to all people via its portal.

But the stakes are also different today. With Amazon Prime, you could pretty much have a total online experience as far as shopping and e-commerce is concerned. I know, because I was using Amazon's Prime services on trial when I made a trip to the U.S. recently.

Anticipating that I would be able to order pretty much everything except big-ticket items like a plasma TV or a fridge, I signed on for Amazon's Prime service for a one-month trial. By doing so, I could have all my orders delivered to my hotel concierge any time of the day, every day, if I wished.

But thankfully for my wife, I didn't.

Still I did find that from the comfort of my own room, I was glued to what Amazon had to offer and bought a considerable amount of items from the online retail giant in the six days I was there.

What's more, I found the e-commerce experience top-notch as I could do everything from tracking my packages right to speaking with a customer care officer over online chat, to clarify some nitty-gritty questions about my order.

I also found out that I could even get a refund should my package arrive at the hotel and I was no longer staying there. Through that experience, I was sold to Amazon and it would be my preferred retailer, if I was living in the United States.

So understandably, Google wants to get into this play.

But here's the thing--can Google come up tops in this service? After all, the story did say that Google will work with retailers and will not be directly in charge of the entire end-to-end service, something that is crucial for a complete and pleasant customer experience.

Will it succeed without the tight control Amazon has over its entire shopping experience? Will it be able to match what Amazon has been doing for years, having successfully optimized everything from its supply chain to customer services to online payment?

That remains to be seen and it will be game on for Google versus Amazon. And don't forget about Facebook and other Web 2.0 providers which will be fighting it out for the world's online loyalty.

In all, one thing though is for sure--the age of a walled garden approach, albeit modified and updated, is beginning to make a comeback, and with a vengeance, I might add.

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