Gizmodo put out a post last week that gathered quite a bit of attention called Facebook is AOLifying the Internet–and That Sucks. In it, the author concludes that Facebook’s never-ending quest to add features that keep people glued to their site means they are an aggregation of sub-par services that decrease the quality of our online lives.
It wants to be Netflix, it wants to be your Xbox, it wants to be Foursquare, it wants to be Gmail—Facebook wants to be the internet. Will you let it?
His argument is actually very much akin to the argument against “big box” department stores like Walmart and Target. Supposedly the big stores are “evil” and we should be supporting local businesses because they have more heart and are better at specific things than the big box stores that don’t specialize.
However, the author misses the fact that Facebook, unlike AOL, is always looking for ways to go beyond its walls with Like buttons, comment widgets, and the rest of their social plugins. It wants to enable your social interactions on Facebook.com and off of it. They know they won’t control your Internet experience, but if they can make it richer, they can still provide value and give you a reason to keep coming back. How many of us are thankful for Facebook Connect that keeps us from having to create new accounts on every site we go to?
AOL held its customers in a prison of AOL content and community, but Facebook knows that it can’t compete with third-party content, so they don’t even try. They help their users find the third-party content that their friends are sharing, and that’s actually a pretty “open” thing to do.
A more viable comparison to AOL is actually Apple. Even since the release of the iPod, Stevie Jobs has been working hard to lock people in to the iEcosystem. If you have an iPod, you need iTunes and the iTunes Store. You can’t just throw MP3s onto your iPod, you need iTunes. If you want to buy MP3s online and put them on your iPod, it’s much easier through iTunes Store than through Amazon. Ripping a CD you just bought? Better do it with iTunes to make sure it works right. When the iPhone rolled around with its App Store, our dependence on iTunes deepened even further. Have an iPad? All the same restrictions apply.
Apple knows they can’t truly lock down their platform, but if you have an iDevice, life is MUCH easier for you if you use it the way Stevie wants you to use it, that is, with the other iSoftware and iDevices that were designed for it. If you want to play a file that’s in the wrong format or want to use a different music player on your computer or want to organize your media files yourself, suddenly you have to search for workarounds and hacks. If you have an iPod/iPhone/iPad, it just works better if you use iTunes, and actually even if you use a Mac. The Apple ecosystem is (almost) complete. You can look even further at how Apple restricts the apps they allow in their App Store, but perhaps that’s a topic for another day.
You can fully complete your assimilation with the iEcosystem by subscribing to MobileMe, but so far this is where Apple has fallen down. The services MobileMe offers are all available elsewhere on the Internet, for less money, so only the true Apple believers are on the platform. I think Apple knows their offering isn’t strong enough here, but watch out: New reports like this one lead me to believe they are renovating MobileMe to become a tighter piece of the iEcosystem. Once that’s up and running, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a smooth experience with Apple devices require an iPod/Phone/Pad, iTunes, a Mac, AND a MobileMe account. Starting to sound more AOLesque?
So while it’s not a perfect analogy, Apple wants to control your mobile, computing & media consumption experiences just as AOL wanted to control your online experience. Apple’s platforms may not be completely closed, but they are certainly much easier to live with if you work within the iEcosystem.
None of this is to say that Apple’s products don’t deserve the success that they’ve seen. They are excellent, forward-looking products, and for people who live within the iEcosystem, they perform admirably. For those of us who have needs that go beyond the iEcosystem, life becomes difficult quickly.
And this is where I believe Apple’s strategy diverges from Facebook’s. Facebook knows you’re going to consume content anywhere you find it, and they want to enable that and find ways to make it a richer experience for you. Apple wants you to find content (media) in the places they recommend, and they want you to consume it using their devices. Facebook wants to enable your online life, while Apple wants to BE your computing life. This is by far the more AOLish strategy.