February 3, 2010

The revenge of the structured Web

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Brice Le Blévennec

Let me take you back to the middle of the nineties. At that time, there were two different, competing and radically opposed schools when it came to the future of digital networks. The first school, represented by Compuserve, defended a structured architecture of the web: Compuserve built a closed system with its own nomenclature and its own applications that were not accessible to non-subscribers. Others, including key players such as AOL and even Apple, offered access to their deceased eWorld to the first forerunners who paced the stammering network.

Brice Le Blevennec, CVO

Brice Le Blevennec, CVO

The second school was the school of the World Wide Web, an invention by Tim Berners-Lee and the Belgian Cailleaux. It was an anarchic, decentralised network that was open to any surfer connected to the web. I remember having a passionate discussion about it with Michel Bauwens back in 1995. I was in favour of the well-ordered Compuserve model whereas he defended the Web. The rest of the story is no mystery: Michel has won the battle. I was right too soon, which meant I was wrong at the time… Because it took many more years before Google corrected my final point of criticism to the web by making the information that could be found here and there in the chaos of the World Wide Web accessible to everyone.

Today, we witness a return of the walled gardens, of controlled content according to a set architecture: Netlog, MySpace, LinkedIn, Xing, Viadeo, Orkut, Virb, Bebo,… The best representative of this trend is no other than the social network Facebook and its 300+ millions of worldwide users. Like Compuserve, Facebook is a private club whose membership requires a subscription. Its content is divided into groups and pages, with a common navigation and standard functionalities. But the business model has changed: one no longer has to pay for access with his credit card but pays by seeing advertising messages.

This return to isolated universes is even more important as the Internet access has become more and more heterogeneous: on top of a computer with a navigating system, we see the boom of mobile phones, portable gaming devices, living room devices,… There are now many ways to access the net. It is no coincidence Facebook has developed tailored versions for the Xbox, iPhone and Android. This diversification follows the pace of the behaviour of surfers who want to connect to the Internet, anytime, anywhere. The structured content platforms can easily develop interfaces that are adapted to these terminals, which gives them a benefit compared to the de-structured web, a galaxy of numerous interfaces and disparate data.

This evolution has an interesting question for brands in store: should they put up their base in the anarchic web, migrate their presence to Facebook-like environments or should they create ex nihilo a universe with their own colours and multiply access interfaces? When you are a worldwide player, this problem probably has different terms since this type of company has the resources to deliver on all the options in order to ensure an optimal and coordinated brand experience: Web, iDTV, Xbox, PS3, Wii, DS, PSP, iPhone/iPod, iPad, Apple TV, Windows Phone, Android, Symbian,… But players in other leagues will be faced with a harder choice since they will have to choose a limited number of entry points to their brand universe. A strategic challenge for the years to come…

Brice Le Blevennec

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