Joe Hewitt

On Middle Men

The Internet has been incredibly empowering to creators, and just as destructive to middle men. In the 20th century, every musician needed a record label to get his or her music heard. Every author needed a publishing house to be read. Every journalist needed a newspaper. Anyone who wanted to send a message needed the post office. In the Internet age, the tail no longer wags the dog, and those middle men have become a luxury, not a necessity.

Meanwhile, the software industry is moving in the opposite direction. With the web and desktop operating systems, the only thing in between software developers and users is a mesh of cables and protocols. In the new world of mobile apps, a layer of bureacrats stand in the middle, forcing each developer to queue up for a series of patdowns and metal detectors and strip searches before they can reach their customers.

That's not to say there is no value to middle men. Middle men exist to reduce the cost of getting a product from A to B, and as long as that cost is significant, they will be useful. However, the moment the middle man monopolizes the means of distribution, he becomes a gatekeeper, and creators can be made to fail not by the merits and popularity of their products, but by the whims and short-term interests of the gatekeeper.

We're at a critical juncture in the evolution of software. The web is still here and it is still strong. Anyone can still put any information or applications on a web server without asking for permission, and anyone in the world can still access it just by typing a URL. I don't think I appreciated how important that is until recently. Nobody designs new systems like that anymore, or at least few of them succeed. What an incredible stroke of luck the web was, and what a shame it would be to let that freedom slip away.

I do not wish to fight any mobile device makers who want to create a software ecosystem and act as the gatekeepers for that ecosystem. What I do want to fight for is the viability of the mobile web. Developers are rushing to create native apps, meanwhile letting their mobile web apps atrophy (I have certainly been guilty of that myself). Web technology is still relatively weak, and improving slowly. At this pace, what will the mobile web look like in 10 years? Will we wake up and find that the next generation of great software companies have incredibly powerful native apps, but mobile websites that are little more than "About" pages?

In short, the mobile web needs better tools, better standards, and better browsers, and it needs them fast, before the only technologies that matter are the ones controlled by the gatekeepers.