This past week or two I’ve had the fun of playing with my new Google Nexus 7 tablet. I can now read all of my books and news feeds without having to either remain in bed or drag my laptop to the deck. What impressed me even more was how simple the setup process was, and the environment that was established for me. I’m a pretty heavy Google user already, so I went ahead and linked up my Google account when I placed my order. When my tablet arrived, I started it up, verified my account, and instantly all of my apps, e-mail, music, and books were synchronized to my device. There was a handy widget on the home screen directing me to what I have, and where I could go to get more (that is, the Google Play Store). All of this gave me a few moments of pause and reminded me that as much as we say we hate them, we still love walled gardens.
In short, walled garden is the term coined for an ecosystem or environment with a fixed set of features. The term originally came from literal walled gardens that had high walls to let vines and other plants grow tall. However, the side effect of this walled garden was that there was only one way in or out, which was specified by the person who built the garden.
This was taken into a digital context back when AOL first became immensely popular. In order to provide the best dialup experience possible ,and help those that weren’t that tech savvy, AOL setup everything for you. They had specialized shops that you could only get to through their specific sections; you accessed the World Wide Web through their version of a browser, which had it’s own limitations. Instant Messaging was becoming very popular back then, but if your friends weren’t using AIM, then you were out of luck.
AOL has gone by the wayside for the most part, but today, and you can see that there are other walled gardens in it’s place, and at different levels.
The most popular of the walled garden debates is the “Open vs. Closed” debate of iPhone and Android. The heart of the debate revolves around the question, “Who has the last say in what apps are installed on your device?” If you own an iPhone, the only place you can go for an apps is Apple’s App Store (jailbreak aside). You can’t simply download an app file and copy it over to your device, like you can with Android. In addition, there are numerous Android “app stores” out there (Amazon provides a nice one with a free app of the day) to let you get apps the Google Play store might not have. To add to the debate, Apple restricts what apps are even available in it’s App Store based on the apps’ content itself. It refuses to allow some apps because they believe it infringes upon a product they already sell, or the content is inappropriate. Apple argues that it can ensure your devices will be safe and family friendly by providing these restrictions and provide the premium experience they are known for.
You can extend this control idea to the web as well. To a large degree, Facebook has it’s own walled garden. It provides a great ecosystem for you to share your updates, photos, videos, and even news articles with your friends. However, you’re largely restricted to how they want to show you the latest updates (the “Top Stories vs. Most Recent” format which a lot of people have complained about). Even your personal home page display is largely out of your control (some people loathe the Timeline). The issue that really gets people upset is when you want to migrate your photos from Facebook to Google+, or even download them as a backup. Facebook doesn’t provide any easy and simple means to do this, so you either do a lot of work or you’re stuck with them there.
While some people tend to get rather upset about these walled gardens, I think that ultimately it is a balance between convenience and customization. Yes, each store examines every application submitted for content, viruses, and code quality, but at the same time you can install an app knowing that it isn’t going to start sending your private information to an identity thief. It also saves you the hassle of having to track all around the Internet for an application that fits your specific need. Google is amazing, but sometimes has a hard time of weeding out the spam site from the legitimate sites based on certain keywords. In addition, being able to go online to the Google Play store, select a few songs or apps to purchase, and have it sent directly to my Nexus 7 is amazingly convenient.
Also consider your online interaction with your friends. Before the advent of social media, you most likely communicated with some friends via e-mail, others through instant messenger, and your friends that were really geeky or savvy had a blog or website setup that you could connect and interact with. Now you have just one site to go to to get all of that, and more. People are able to get their “mom an pop” shops an instant fan base thanks to the ability to create pages and share them with your friends (and their friends). Let’s not forget that you can get to all of these resources using your laptop, phone, or even tablet without even installing an application.
Is it possible to survive in the “digital frontier” without a walled garden? It most certainly is. I’m current a .Net developer (Windows) that operates and does all of my programming on a MacBook Pro (Apple) and I carry around an Android phone and tablet (Google) for my day to day interaction. To make this happen I’ve found a handful of applications that work on pretty much any device. Setting this up, however, took a bit of time, and digging, and there are limits to what I can do.
That’s the trade off that you have to consider. If you want to make your computing/online life as simple as using a toaster, then you’re going to have to check into a garden and play by it’s rules. Find a garden that looks pretty and has rules that you’re comfortable with, and don’t complain when you discover there are some things you can’t do there.