News & Updates

Walled Gardens are back in fashion for all the right reasons

By James MacTavish / November 26, 2014

Walled Gardens

The novel “The Secret Garden” involved a young girl discovering a walled Victorian garden where everything was safe and rosy. In the mobile industry and the app economy the “walled garden” has become synonymous with closed markets, protectionism and control.

While this perception may exist, we argue that walled gardens are coming back in fashion and that an open app ecosystem isn’t the best option in industries such as education or automotive, where a closed, highly curated and controlled app environment is a far better approach.

Walled Gardens: A Brief History

Looking back, probably the first widespread example of a walled garden was AOL. In AOL’s version of the Internet, a user would dial into AOL’s modem banks, and once connected would be presented with a curated version of the Internet.

Walled gardens were also popular with mobile operators at one time, who tried for many years to impose walls around their content, where the only apps and ringtones available for download were from the carrier’s app store. At the time, operators would argue that they also provided Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) browsers, but the pages were restricted to the operator’s portal.

At the time of AOL and the operators’ walled garden reign, most of the operating systems in the market were closed and proprietary, including GPS navigation devices, games consoles, TVs and cameras, which made walled gardens a necessity since there was no easy way to onboard a range of open apps onto those devices.

However, the walls shifted dramatically with the arrival of Apple’s iPhone and its formidable ecosystem. In 2012, The Guardian conducted an interview with the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, where he shared his concerns pertaining to the web being under threat. The Guardian wrote:

Berners-Lee has been an outspoken defender of the ’open internet,’ warning in 2010 that web freedom was under threat from the rise of social network ’silos’ such as Facebook and ’closed world’ apps such as those released by Apple. He was worried by the rise of so-called ’native apps’ such as those produced for the iPhone and iPad, because they were not searchable.

In a clear dig at Apple's highly restrictive ecosystem, he said: ’I should be able to pick which applications I use for managing my life, I should be able to pick which content I look at, and I should be able to pick which device I use, which company I use for supplying my Internet, and I'd like those to be independent choices.’

Berners-Lee’s thoughts link nicely from the early Internet through to today where many agree that Apple is the best current example of a walled garden. Often criticized by the industry for stifling innovation, in truth Apple has just as many apps as Android, and has made millions of dollars from the produce in its garden. Furthermore, users of Apple devices don’t seem to complain, with many stating they feel safer knowing that the apps have been quality-assured by Apple.
The emergence of other devices trying to create app ecosystems and content platforms to rival Apple, such as Amazon’s Kindle, continues today, however, not every entrant manages to create a successful private ecosystem. Barnes and Noble found out the hard way with the recently discontinued Nook Touch e-reader, effectively ceding the low end of the e-reader market to Amazon, which arguably has the biggest walled library of e-books.

Are walled gardens “the new normal”?

Walled gardens have taken on a whole new lease of life in today’s world of apps and social media. In a world of open APIs, open source, and share-all websites and social networks, this post will look at how not everything’s as open as it may seem.

The aim of most website owners is to get a user to visit a website, log in and stay put. This coveted control of the path to information or purchase is creating a paradigm shift in open Internet philosophies, and therefore is one of the main drivers behind the growing proliferation and adoption of native apps. A native app is effectively a walled garden because once a user is inside an app, they typically stay, unlike the web where users hop from page to page. In fact, brands are increasingly interacting with consumers with their own home-grown, customized, native apps because they can better control the brand experience, especially since mobile-optimized websites still leave much to be desired.

While most of us from the Western world think the Internet as open, this isn’t necessarily true in emerging markets. For example, in March 2013, MIT Technology Review reported how “Facebook and Google Create Walled Gardens for Web Newcomers Overseas” by essentially providing free Internet access in exchange for greater control by restricting access to other sites. This sounds like a flashback to the early days of the walled garden AOL internet as I discussed in part 1 of this article at xxxxxxxxxxx. As Facebook and Twitter tighten their grip on users, one has to question their impact on the wider Internet. For example, Fast Company wrote an article entitled, “From inside walled gardens, social networks are suffocating the internet as we know it.” Fast Company wrote:

Mobile apps are another challenge to the open web--self-contained islands that lock off their data from the wider net. Open web advocate, Chris Saad, sums up what seems to be a sad picture: ’URLs are fading into the background, native mobile apps are all the rage and Facebook threatens to engulf the web into a proprietary black hole.’

However, to quote a contrary view, entrepreneur and Wired founder John Battalle, said ’The open web is full of spam, shady operators and blatant falsehoods...In the curated gardens of places like Apple and Facebook, the weeds are kept to a minimum, and the user experience is just...better.’

The article then discussed recent growth in APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), which enable those walled garden apps to share information, effectively serving as the gates in and out of the walled garden. However, Internet giants are beginning to enforce restriction of their APIs in order to monetize. Twitter, for example, has restricted its APIs, and polices them in order to control its valuable data and ensure it is the one doing the monetizing, not the open Internet and app ecosystem.

Not All Are Introverted

But not every aspect of the Internet or app ecosystem is becoming completely introverted. Google’s Android is far less a walled garden in comparison to Apple’s iOS. For example, Android users can install apps (known as APKs) from any source, enterprises can load their Android devices with all manner of restriction-free software, and the business models on Android are much more open than Apple. There are also hundreds of companies making Android-based devices, so there aren’t any walls being built by Google in the smartphone and tablet space. However, Google TV and Chromecast have much smaller app ecosystems and more stringent requirements for third parties, but this is probably more to do with immature app development ecosystems than restrictive practices.

There is also the rise of the “open operating systems” such as Mozilla’s Firefox OS and Intel’s and Samsung’s Tizen OS initiatives, however, the lack of apps and developers has resulted in a garden that’s open but nothing of notable value is growing - yet.

Carlos Domingo, Director of Product Development and Innovation at Telefonica Digital, wrote an article on Wired, entitled: “A walled garden approach to the mobile web is stifling innovation.” He wrote:

The development of the web is under threat. The part of it consumed on mobile phones is in decline -- and it's this part that's arguably the most important for its future. As smartphones have exploded in popularity, the web is becoming increasing mobile. It's vital the mobile ecosystem is opened up so that innovation can flourish as healthily as it does on the desktop web. HTML5 can let us achieve this.

HTML5, or as Carlos calls it, “The savior of mobile,” is so open that brands have taken it, leveraged it, and wrapped it inside native apps to create walls around something that was designed to be open, which is counter intuitive and would have many HTML5 pioneers rolling in their metaphorical graves.

A Time and a Place

Despite the technology industry’s aversion to walled gardens, in many ways, we are finding ourselves returning to a walled garden approach, but on our terms. But before we talk about the future of walled gardens, we need to rename “walled garden” to a more positive term coined by AppCarousel: Secure Controlled App Platform and Ecosystem (SCAPE). There are many examples where being both secure and controlled is actually a good thing. For example, Techopedia has a page on walled gardens, stating:

Walled gardens have been used for a very long time. Schools and colleges extensively use the walled garden method to prevent students from accessing inappropriate content on the Web. Teachers need a password to leave the walled garden environment and browse the Internet without any restrictions on website content.

At AppCarousel, we create SCAPEs every day, and often do so for industries where an open environment simply isn’t suitable, such as education. In fact, we are seeing a sizable upswing in organizations that need SCAPEs, not because they want to protect revenues or apply unnecessary controls, but because their market sector, device or use case dictates a tightly managed supply chain of apps, coupled with curated content and well-policed cloud APIs and a secure app platform.

A good example is children-focused services such as PennyOwl, which offers an online app-based pocket money system for kids, including the ability to spend money on selected apps and in-app purchases with none of the issues that Google and Apple have seen with kids running up huge bills.

The automotive sector is yet another industry that is less conducive to an open environment. The car industry is finding itself at a crossroads, as an article by PandoDaily in January 2014 called “2014: The Year of the Connected Car” discusses:

Ford is an outlier among major auto manufacturers in that they are betting heavily on their own “Car as a Platform” play — the Ford Developer Program. The Ford Developer Program looks a lot like any open API provided by content or app providers on the web. By leveraging Microsoft SYNC AppLink, it provides APIs and SDKs for developing apps that will run in Ford cars as well as resources for testing, distributing and promoting your app. Ford is betting heavily on the walled garden approach with SYNC Voice Command; it will be interesting to see how this bet pays off.
Whether a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) strategy will work in the car or not, the truth is that it’s not practical for drivers to browse thousands of apps while driving.

At AppCarousel, we work with automotive brands to create tightly integrated, end-to-end app experiences optimized for driving. Not to be mistaken as walled gardens, we open them up via a comprehensive set of on-device and cloud APIs, and we allow third parties of selected apps and content to connect. Overall, the goal is to deliver a Secure - and safe- Controlled - and well managed - App Platform and Ecosystem … a SCAPE.

The Future

Despite the test of time, and industry pushbacks and challenges over the walled garden business model, they have still managed to prove their relevancy today and in our opinion will be even more prominent tomorrow. Fully open systems don’t fit the bill for many industries, devices and solutions. This will increasingly be the case as the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes mainstream, whether it’s wearables, alarm panels, sensors, TV set top boxes or thousands of other device types, all of which are now wirelessly connected. At AppCarousel, we see a broadening of the software and app management requirements for these connected devices and the blurring of the lines between firmware, software and apps. All of that software needs to be updated and managed over the air. Most of these devices will need their software and apps to be managed privately and securely, which is why we are seeing a dramatic growth in SCAPEs, each with unique requirements. The walled garden of the future won’t be designed for protectionism or profiteering, it will be for reasons of control, security and quality – a safe and rosy Secret Garden.