In the media world, this has taken the form of a shift from ad-supported free content to freemium — free samples as marketing for paid services — with an emphasis on the “premium” part. On the Web, average CPMs (the price of ads per thousand impressions) in key content categories such as news are falling, not rising, because user-generated pages are flooding Facebook and other sites. The assumption had been that once the market matured, big companies would be able to reverse the hollowing-out trend of analog dollars turning into digital pennies. Sadly that hasn’t been the case for most on the Web, and by the looks of it there’s no light at the end of that tunnel. Thus the shift to the app model on rich media platforms like the iPad, where limited free content drives subscription revenue (check out Wired’s cool new iPad app!).
The Web won’t take the sequestering of its commercial space easily. The defenders of the unfettered Web have their hopes set on HTML5 — the latest version of Web-building code that offers applike flexibility — as an open way to satisfy the desire for quality of service. If a standard Web browser can act like an app, offering the sort of clean interface and seamless interactivity that iPad users want, perhaps users will resist the trend to the paid, closed, and proprietary. But the business forces lining up behind closed platforms are big and getting bigger. This is seen by many as a battle for the soul of the digital frontier.
Zittrain argues that the demise of the all-encompassing, wide-open Web is a dangerous thing, a loss of open standards and services that are “generative” — that allow people to find new uses for them. “The prospect of tethered appliances and software as service,” he warns, “permits major regulatory intrusions to be implemented as minor technical adjustments to code or requests to service providers.”
But what is actually emerging is not quite the bleak future of the Internet that Zittrain envisioned. It is only the future of the commercial content side of the digital economy. Ecommerce continues to thrive on the Web, and no company is going to shut its Web site as an information resource. More important, the great virtue of today’s Web is that so much of it is noncommercial. The wide-open Web of peer production, the so-called generative Web where everyone is free to create what they want, continues to thrive, driven by the nonmonetary incentives of expression, attention, reputation, and the like. But the notion of the Web as the ultimate marketplace for digital delivery is now in doubt.
The Internet is the real revolution, as important as electricity; what we do with it is still evolving. As it moved from your desktop to your pocket, the nature of the Net changed. The delirious chaos of the open Web was an adolescent phase subsidized by industrial giants groping their way in a new world. Now they’re doing what industrialists do best — finding choke points. And by the looks of it, we’re loving it.
Editor in chief Chris Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote about the new industrial revolution in issue 18.02.
Jobs perfectly fills that void. Other technologists have steered clear of actual media businesses, seeing themselves as renters of systems and third-party facilitators, often deeply wary of any involvement with content. (See, for instance, Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s insistence that his company is not in the content business.) Jobs, on the other hand, built two of the most successful media businesses of the past generation: iTunes, a content distributor, and Pixar, a movie studio. Then, in 2006, with the sale of Pixar to Disney, Jobs becomes the biggest individual shareholder in one of the world’s biggest traditional media conglomerates — indeed much of Jobs’ personal wealth lies in his traditional media holdings.
In fact, Jobs had, through iTunes, aligned himself with traditional media in a way that Google has always resisted. In Google’s open and distributed model, almost anybody can advertise on nearly any site and Google gets a cut — its interests are with the mob. Apple, on the other hand, gets a cut any time anybody buys a movie or song — its interests are aligned with the traditional content providers. (This is, of course, a complicated alignment, because in each deal, Apple has quickly come to dominate the relationship.)
So it’s not shocking that Jobs’ iPad-enabled vision of media’s future looks more like media’s past. In this scenario, Jobs is a mogul straight out of the studio system. While Google may have controlled traffic and sales, Apple controls the content itself. Indeed, it retains absolute approval rights over all third-party applications. Apple controls the look and feel and experience. And, what’s more, it controls both the content-delivery system (iTunes) and the devices (iPods, iPhones, and iPads) through which that content is consumed.
Since the dawn of the commercial Web, technology has eclipsed content. The new business model is to try to let the content — the product, as it were — eclipse the technology. Jobs and Zuckerberg are trying to do this like old-media moguls, fine-tuning all aspects of their product, providing a more designed, directed, and polished experience. The rising breed of exciting Internet services — like Spotify, the hotly anticipated streaming music service; and Netflix, which lets users stream movies directly to their computer screens, Blu-ray players, or Xbox 360s — also pull us back from the Web. We are returning to a world that already exists — one in which we chase the transformative effects of music and film instead of our brief (relatively speaking) flirtation with the transformative effects of the Web.
After a long trip, we may be coming home.
Michael Wolff (email@example.com) is a new contributing editor for Wired. He is also a columnist for Vanity Fair and the founder of Newser, a news-aggregation site.
An earlier version of the chart at the beginning of this article incorrectly listed the time span from 1995 to 2005. The correct time span is 1990 to 2010. The correct version appears in the print magazine.