How apps are chipping away at the open web

My latest “Dylan’s Desk” column for VentureBeat looks at a disturbing trend: The way app developers are giving up on three decades of openness and interconnection.

I am not yet sure that this is a truly widespread or irreversible trend. But I do feel skeptical about the rush to replace mobile websites with native mobile apps. This piece explains why.

For three decades, HTTP (which Paul Ford called “the Web’s operating system”) and HTML have proven to be resilient, flexible tools for interconnecting people and machines, facilitating communication in the most decentralized way imaginable. Anyone can publish a web page to a server on the Internet, and within seconds it is readable by anyone in the world who has the address and a browser capable of rendering HTML.

What’s more, anyone can link to any page on the Web without having to ask permission and without having to worry about what hardware or software delivers that page. All you need is a URL — another widely accepted, well-defined standard for interconnecting information.

Now, however, there’s a threat to this openness. It’s called the app store.

Technically, it’s not just the store: It’s the entire ecosystem of apps, content, hardware, and software. Apple perfected the model, and it has transformed the company into one of the most profitable corporations in the world. Even though its share price has plummeted in recent months, Apple is still in a very strong position thanks to the leverage that this ecosystem gives it. Indeed, that position is so strong that Apple continues to generate profits even though its market share among mobile devices is shrinking.

But here’s the problem: Apps are difficult to connect to one another. There’s no universally accepted way to link to a specific page or location within an app. (Many apps don’t even have pages.) To connect with an app, you need to use its application programming interface (API), assuming it has one, or the API of the device it’s running on. Naturally, that API differs from device to device. Making app-to-app connections is far more difficult than linking to a URL because you need to be a programmer to do it.

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I’d like to hear what you think.

How apps are chipping away at the open web

What to do about the complete failure of gun control

Here’s the deal: The NRA is simply *far* better organized than the gun control lobby. A passionate minority will prevail over an apathetic majority any day, in our political system.

Here’s what I think gun control people need to do, if they’re serious:

  • Start a “National Gun Safety Association.” 
  • Make the debate about “gun safety” not “gun control.” Focus first on how limiting crazy people’s access to guns is a safety issue, not a control issue.
  • If that shows some success, expand the safety discussion to limiting magazine size and assault weapons bans — also safety issues, not rights issues.
  • Pair the above efforts with an extensive gun safety training outreach. Offer training so people who own guns can learn how to use them safely — and how to store them safely.
  • Make the spokesmen people like Gabby Giffords, who are gun owners, not liberals like Mike Bloomberg, who are not — and make it clear that the organization has no opposition to safe gun ownership. 
  • Make it a membership-based organization that not only raises funds, but can also mobilize its members to write letters and call senators/congressman. Throw parties. Have events. Make people feel like they belong to something.
  • Throw money at strategic congressional and senatorial races to aggressively punish politicians who vote counter to the organization’s goals.

If there’s an organization out there like this, I want to join it, and I will contribute.

Update: Sunlight Foundation has stats on how much money various organizations on both sides of the gun debate have contributed since 1989. Detailed stats here. Notably, the NRA doesn’t even show up on the list of top contributors to the last election cycle.

Update 2: I found an organization matching many of the above points. It’s Americans for Responsible Solutions, founded by Gabrielle Giffords and Marc Kelly. I gave them $50.

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What to do about the complete failure of gun control

My stance on covering the latest Silicon Valley rumor fest

There are a lot of rumors going around about a certain blog founder. My take is that most of it is completely unfounded and comes from people with an obvious interest in discrediting him. So for now, VentureBeat is not covering this “story.”

After I posted this note on Facebook, I got asked: Are we afraid to cover this story because we’re afraid of blowback from the accused guy? And would we treat this story differently if it had to do with a true Silicon Valley bigwig, like Apple CEO Tim Cook?

I can answer with some concrete examples. Keith Rabois, COO at Square, left his company after accusations that he sexually harassed an employee. We covered that, because A, he really left the company, and B, he wrote a post about it. We also covered a sexual harassment case at VC firm CMEA, and last year, we covered the sexual harassment case at Kleiner Perkins.

VentureBeat has been one of the few (if not the only) tech blogs to cover all three big sexual harassment cases in Silicon Valley in the past year. In all three cases, we didn’t hesitate to take on a story about someone powerful and/or friendly with us. (Rabois has been a speaker at VentureBeat conferences, for instance, and KP is obviously hugely powerful in the valley). In all three cases, we stuck to reportable facts but didn’t pull any punches.

So to answer the question: Say Tim Cook gets accused of harassment. We’d cover immediately if there was a civil or criminal action. But suppose it’s all rumors and hearsay, and thanks to mob mentality all the other tech blogs start covering it. In that case we’d probably weigh in with a post saying “Here’s the rumor that everyone is talking about, but there is no evidence for it at all.” Because at that point, the chatter itself is newsworthy, and the absence of evidence would be the most salient, reportable fact.

Back to our competing blog founder: We’re staying away from the story because of lack of evidence, not fear. But also we have a special reason to be reticent, which is that he founded a competing site. I know from experience that we care more about our competitors than our readers do. Readers really aren’t looking to VentureBeat for stories about our competition, and they get annoyed when we get sucked into blog wars. So we have a special reluctance to cover competitors for that reason.

We’ll override that reluctance if there’s anything material to talk about. But for now, I see no reason to publish anything.

My stance on covering the latest Silicon Valley rumor fest

Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

– Roger Ebert

via Susan Barnett

Ebert obituary from the Chicago Sun Times

Ebert’s last tweet

Roger Ebert, 1942-2013