Yesterday, in an eloquent feature for The New York Times, Nick Bilton made the argument that the Internet, as an industry, is rapidly approaching a stifling plateau. Following an early life characterized by innovative accomplishment, Bilton makes the argument that the Internet's fundamentally fun spirit is being woefully undermined by growing regulatory concerns and corporate whims. Despite Bilton's compelling wording, I simply do not agree.
The central flaw within Bilton's argument is his conflation of industry and environment. Rather than regarding the Internet as a rich wilderness ripe for life and evolution, Bilton views the Internet as some sort of industrialized cityscape. While successful companies certainly do influence the manner in which the end-user may interact with the Internet and the information therein, I would argue that it is not the company that defines the experience, but the end-user.
The Internet is a place in which innovation is facilitated for all. Whether you are a writer looking to self-publish or a programmer looking to make your mark, there are fewer and fewer obstacles to contend with each day. Such has never been the case for the automobile, telephone, or airline industries cited in Mr. Bilton's article. Each of those industries has a high entry cost, a requisite skill set, and a finite reach. The Internet, on the other hand, is limited only by the pace of the imagination of any person that chooses to engage and contribute. As such, any purported inevitability of regulation and developmental stagnation is undercut by a constant influx of new ideas, people, and experimentation.
Unlike any other industry on the planet, the Internet is unhindered by any traditional bounds. Perhaps there are some corporations that have come to define the way in which we look at the Internet, but such ascension has occurred in a comparably small period of time. Unlike the constant rivalry of airlines and automobile manufacturers, the Internet has been thus far characterized by a perpetually accelerated ebb and flow of progression and iteration. Yahoo! was nullified by Google, and it's not beyond the reach of imagination to believe that Google may some day suffer a similar fate.
In an environment characterized by increasing interaction, widespread adoption, and a societal impact unfettered by any specific industry or corporate message, I cannot help but recognize that the fun is most certainly still alive, well and ripe with opportunity. The end-user is gaining an increasingly accessible voice on the Internet, companies are facilitating bold new ways to socially interact, and young people are being raised with the Internet as a given portion of their lives and education. To think that such facts embody an environment bereft of fun and plucky innovation is defeatist.
The fun of tinkering and hacking our way into the newfound Internet environment may be lost in some ways, but I propose that this early innovation and hard work has paved the initial road to new types of enjoyment, new types of fun and experimentation, and new technologies we are as yet unaware of. Looking at the modern smartphone - a device facilitated by the growing power of the Internet - it has fostered a ubiquitously connected world. Perhaps Google and Apple are competitive, but that's not to say that both companies aren't innovative and fostering fun developmental environments for new forms of communication, interaction, and sociability.
The specific citation of the respective address book and photograph loopholes apparent in iOS and Android seems a resounding reminder of the hacker spirit still driving the industry. The early days of the Internet were not characterized by polished and flawless products. The Internet was an unordered, frequently broken mishmash of information and capability. Perhaps such flaws received little regulatory interest or coverage in The New York Times, but such is the nature of a maturing environment. Regulatory intervention and some privacy failings are not conclusive signs of an end of plucky fun and innovation - they are indicative of a credible and multi-faceted environment that we are all still struggling to fully grasp. The mere fact that we can look at a cloud-centric address book and high quality mobile phone camera - both relatively new innovations - as being evidence of the Internet and corporations as lacking in fun innovation is impetuous.
Whether you choose to perceive the Internet as a traditional industry or not, it is important to be cognizant of the fact that innovation and fun can be made wherever you would like it to. From the lone individual typing on his laptop to the high-level executive sitting in his plush office, innovation and fun need not be stifled by perceived problems outside of their control. Google being slapped with privacy fines and regulations? Who cares! That is not an indication of the Internet's developmental stagnation, that is a reminder of its remaining trial and error nature.
Trial and error is mostly not a possibility in airlines, automobiles, and telephones. In each of those categories, the product either works or it doesn't. With the Internet, there is always room for redefinition, rejuvenation and, above all else, fun.