Control

This week I’ll be on stage at Mobile Future Forward to talk about the “New Waves of Innovation” given the Connected Intelligence era we are entering. While I’m excited about engaging in this important conversation, I wanted to share an observation I’m having as I prepare for the conference. Control over software distribution has never been so tightly restricted in the history of commercial computing. This is deeply troubling for a number of reasons, but I am hopeful for a change in this trend.

If we take a step back to the early 1980s, we can recall a wave of commercial computing where Microsoft possessed an incredible position of power over software distribution. However, Microsoft did not have unilateral control given the architecture of the time – client applications with no network connectivity. This meant that physical retail, direct sales, and bundling partnerships were all viable healthy distribution channels for software providers. In fact, the physical retail channel was incredibly effective and thus a competitive merchandizing driven channel that is an interesting footnote in the context of today’s App Stores.

Jumping into the 1990s, software distribution was forever changed with the emergence of network connectivity. With the benefit of hindsight, vertically integrated networks, such as Prodigy and AOL, were short blips that did not have much impact on software distribution (though again, another interesting footnote in the context of App Stores.) Instead, the web’s open connected nature shifted software distribution online for consumer software. Netscape, WinAmp and Skype are good examples of upstart software products that benefited from online distribution without centralized control. It is worth mentioning that businesses still primarily bought software via direct sales or retail channels. Yet, I think that can be attributed to pricing (fine-grained control) & file sizes (download times given bandwidth constraints.)

In the 2000s, software distribution changed with the move to Cloud-based applications that do not have downloaded components. When this occurred, the catalog of software, and software-enabled content (blogs et al) exploded beyond human comprehension. I would say that this was by far the biggest inflection point of software distribution as the challenge shifted from getting bits to customers, to getting customers to be aware of the bits. Thus online advertising, viral marketing, and inside sales superseded the historical distribution channels of the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, new types of control emerged in the form of black box algorithms that were under unilateral authority of a single entity. For the first time, someone could effectively “banish” an application from the world by hiding its existence. Luckily no one player had a perfect monopoly on online attention, so this was more of a theoretical risk (except when not).

More recently, software distribution has been defined by App Stores that are vertically integrated into technology platforms, and so closed ecosystems have emerged. For the first time ever a single entity had the ability to banish an app as well as a perfect monopoly over distribution. We’ve entered a world where Apple, Google, and Facebook have perfect, or near perfect monopolies of closed ecosystems, each with over a billion users. While these ecosystems contain different distribution characteristics brought forward from past eras it is obscene as to how much unilateral control their owners can exert. What is really troubling is that there are no checks and balances in place. Especially given that these closed ecosystems are only growing in size, as four billion people get online for the first time in the next few years.

As I’ve internalized these observations, I’ve shifted my focus to see what could change the control dynamics structurally. As a VC, I see that the most obvious approach would be to invest in a challenger to one of these players, but that doesn’t change the dynamics. It merely changes who is in control (for example, Xiaomi.) I am wary of attempts to commoditize similarly situated ecosystems since seeing it fail so spectacularly first hand with Facebook’s HTML5 strategy though I will watch Microsoft’s new attempts. And of course there might be regulation put in place by various governments.

However, as a technologist I’ve realized there is one very interesting approach available – to leverage Android’s inherent technical openness to remove central control. Fascinatingly, this has already happened in China where Google does not have control of the Chinese Android Ecosystem. Regardless of the mechanism, or how it is triggered, I am hopeful we are approaching a point of change. I’d love to find startups that are thinking about facilitating the change through their business strategy or envision the change as an unfair advantage to building a big company.