The Empire Strikes Back?

For years, I only knew of George Lucas’ 1977 cinematic sci-fi breakthrough as “Star Wars.”  Then I found out that it was part of a trilogy. But wait, Lucas had a plan all along; this tale of an oppressed rag-tag alliance looking to overturn a hierarchical, monopolistic political system (aka “The Empire”) was always meant to be “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.”

Of course, in a multi-part saga, if the good guys get their way initially, the Empire is always going to have to Strike Back to make it a good story. When I read Groundswell co-author Josh Bernoff’s The Splinternet Means the End of the Web’s Golden Age, that’s what immediately came to mind.

We’ve been declaring an end to media monopolies for a while now, thanks to networked communities who no longer require institutional intermediaries to share, collaborate or take collective action.  This ability to produce and consume media for almost free threatened the very economic model that media moguls had taken to the bank for over a century. As I made my own transition from corporate media journalist to independent content creator, I took advantage of new, inexpensive tools that we saw as the great democratizer of production.

Apple was part of this rebellion, helping us to crash through the barriers to entry with the digital weaponry of firewire, USB, Final Cut Pro, iDVD — this filmmaker’s “secret plans to the Death Star,” so to speak.  As digital content proliferated, The Empire writhed in agony, from The New York Times to Conde Nast to NBC, desperately in search of new business models.  Now, with renewed focus on pay walls and walled gardens, Bernoff sees Apple’s new iPad as the turning point as we leave the Web’s hopeful first age of universality and openness:

…[M]ore and more of the interesting stuff on the Web is hidden behind a login and password. Take Facebook for example. Not only do its applications not work anywhere else, Google can’t see most of it. And News Corp. and the New York Times are talking about putting more and more content behind a login…Each new device has its own ad networks, format, and technology. Each new social site has its login and many hide content from search engines.

Bernoffs Splinternet Chart

Without a camera or a USB port (unless you buy Apple’s proprietary dongle accessory), the iPad is intended as a media consumption device.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and many media companies see salvation in a portable device that serves as a safe, monetizable conduit to their content. What has some folks in a tizzy is how Apple is luring consumers into this enjoyable and convenient ecosystem by sealing off the very nature of the open Web. Witness what Cluetrain Manifesto guru Doc Searls has to say:

What depressed me, though I expected it, was the big pile of what are clearly verticalized Apple apps, which I am sure enjoy privileged positions in the iPad’s app portfolio, no matter how big that gets. It’s full of customer lock-in. I’m a photographer, and the only use for iPhoto I have is getting shots off the iPhone. Apple’s calendar on the iPhone and computer (iCal) is, while useful, still lame. Maybe it’ll be better on the iPad, but I doubt it. And the hugely sphinctered iTunes/Store system also remains irritating, though I understand why Apple does it.

The geek elite has focused primarily on how Apple has not enabled the iPad for Adobe’s near-ubiquitous Flash multimedia platform.  For now, that means no YouTube or Hulu – competitors to iTunes.  Some say this isn’t such a bad thing, as Apple favors what it sees as the more open HTML5, and that Flash is on its way out anyway.  Web dude Robert Scoble himself stirred the pot (read the great comments!) with Can Flash Be Saved?

So, was Steve Jobs always more Anakin (good guy corrupted by power into Darth Vader) than Luke Skywalker all along?  The guy who gave us the signature 1984 Super Bowl commercial of a single woman taking a sledgehammer to tyranny, now sitting on Disney’s board, a hawker of music, TV shows, and movies, all wrapped up neatly (and Flash-free) behind iTunes? Judging from the heated debate about the iPad, some feel betrayed; others say it’s a natural next step in media technology that will set us free.

I’m absolutely fascinated by this conversation — and we need to pay close attention to it.  If Bernoff is correct, we are starting a new chapter in the story of the Web with the emergence of a new order that includes Apple, Facebook and Google.  This will have a direct impact on how we produce, consume and pay for media, and where we go on the Web to engage in those experiences.

Originally posted to The Storyteller Uprising
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