The Fall of the Internet and the Rise of the 'Splinternet'

"The golden age of the Web is coming to an end. Prepare for the Splinternet."

Thus announces Josh Bernoff in an interesting post about how new gadgets designed for surfing the Web -- our smartphones, e-readers, tablets and even TVs -- are fighting with each other to redefine how we access information online. But what is the "Splinternet" and why should the answer even matter to you?*

Let's take a step back and think about some of the new gadgets on the market. Smartphones and e-readers are not like laptops, where each computer lets you interact the same Web. For example, Apple iPad won't support Flash software, which supports most online videos. Ben Kunz of BusinessWeek suggests this is a blatant move to force iPad users to satisfy all their video cravings through Apple stores. Similarly, in the e-reader arms race, Apple, Sony and Amazon are competing with different libraries of books and products.

If the last 10 years were a heyday for open content on the Web, the next ten years could be the age of platforms. Today to reach the universe of new mobile browsers, you can't assume that your audience is using only a laptop to access the same version of your content. So it won't be enough to have just a magazine website. Instead you'll need a website and a Kindle App and an iPhone/iPad app and another app for another device that has a distinct audience and requires a specific template. Kunz sums up the problem for content providers like this:

The device-portal tie-up isn't necessarily bad for consumers, who have plenty of choices for media consumption. But it creates a thorny puzzle for businesses striving to build audiences. How do you compete when your potential customers are using devices and content systems that lock one another out?

Let's bring this back to advertising, because money is at the heart of this platform battle. The first wave of the ad war was fought on a couple fronts, dominated by display ads on content pages and search ads on search pages. Google's great revenue revelation was that you could make a bazillion dollars selling online ads next to search results, because you're putting ads through an obvious filter: what the user wants to find. Google has parlayed that discovery into $23 billion business. It is the success story in advertising in the last five years.

But in the Splinternet age, ads are more tightly controlled by platform. My old Blackberry defaulted to Bing search because Verizon has a deal with Mircosoft. But my new phone that runs Google Android software serves Google ads under apps for programs like Pandora. Meanwhile Apple has banned any apps that use location-based software to serve up targeted ads, presumably because it wants to corner that market on its own device. This is a new age, where gadgets have a "hidden agenda" to hold you in their ecosystem of content display and advertising. There are walls are going up just as the walls to mobile Internet access are falling down.

*For reference, here's how Bernoff distinguishes between the Old Internet and New Splinternet:


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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