This morning Virginia Heffernan wrote an editorial in the NYTimes Magazine in which she argues that the open web is going to be killed off by paywalls and closed browsing experiences (like the iPhone). I disagree with her conclusion (she also has a detail wrong, too).
People who find the Web distasteful — ugly, uncivilized — have nonetheless been forced to live there: it’s the place to go for jobs, resources, services, social life, the future. But now, with the purchase of an iPhone or an iPad, there’s a way out, an orderly suburb that lets you sample the Web’s opportunities without having to mix with the riffraff. This suburb is defined by apps from the glittering App Store: neat, cute homes far from the Web city center, out in pristine Applecrest Estates. In the migration of dissenters from the “open” Web to pricey and secluded apps, we’re witnessing urban decentralization, suburbanization and the online equivalent of white flight.
Let me give you the first and most obvious example that proves people don't want a closed experience: AOL. Ten years ago AOL was one of the largest ISPs in the world. Where are they now? They used to provide all sorts of services (much like what is happening behind paywalls now), and yet people still abandoned AOL in droves. People preferred the open web. But you don't have to use AOL as an example. What about Compuserve?
She cites the success of the iPhone and iPad as proof that people are adopting the closed web experience. She's wrong about the iPad, and I think she misunderstands why people use apps on the iPhone. I've heard a couple reports now from people who've stopped using the iPad apps because the Safari browser is just as good if not better.This means that the closed browsing experience doesn't fair well when placed on equal footing with the open browsing experience.
This would suggest that people use apps on the iPhone not because they prefer apps, but because browsing the open web is not pleasant ona 3.5" screen. This creates a niche where the closed browsing experience wins, but it's only a niche (not the tip of a wedge).
But a kind of virtual redlining is now under way. The Webtropolis is being stratified. Even if, like most people, you still surf the Web on a desktop or laptop, you will have noticed pay walls, invitation-only clubs, subscription programs, privacy settings and other ways of creating tiers of access. All these things make spaces feel “safe” — not only from viruses, instability, unwanted light and sound, unrequested porn, sponsored links and pop-up ads, but also from crude design, wayward and unregistered commenters and the eccentric voices and images that make the Web constantly surprising, challenging and enlightening.
When a wall goes up, the space you have to pay to visit must, to justify the price, be nicer than the free ones. The catchphrase for software developers is “a better experience.” Behind pay walls like the ones on Honolulu Civil Beat, the new venture by the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London, production values surge. Cool software greets the paying lady and gentleman; they get concierge service, perks. Web stations with entrance fees are more like boutiques than bazaars.
It's too early to tell if paywalls will be a success, but I suspect they're only going to work for niche markets. And I disagree that the expeirnce must be better behind the paywall. No, it's the content that must be better. Customers have to be convinced that there is something of value, something unique, behind the paywall or they won't pay. The Times of London aren't promising to provide better content; all they're doing is moving their current web content behind the paywall.
Do you want to see an example of a paywall that might actually work? Check out Variety. They're using a system where the open content is reasonably good and the subscription content is better. This is the one example I know of that might actually work.