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Walled Gardens & The Burden Of Autocratic Governance

Aug 17, 2007
When the communists ruled the USSR, we saw a classic example of how an autocratic government becomes top-heavy. If those in control micro-manage every decision, every meal, job, and shoe the people wear, the government needs to grow very large to handle all the 'decision overhead'. At the same time, decisions themselves become scarce and thus one type of shoe is chosen for everyone to wear. Variety and choice are eliminated. The situation with wireless carriers and their Walled Gardens of content is very much the same.

These carriers seek to choose and control every bit of the content experience on their networks, and as such, are heavily burdened by the ever-growing responsibility of overseeing hundreds of developers and thousands of SKUs. But unlike Communist Russia, the telcos aren't growing their staff to handle the challenge (not being able to tax, they have to control costs, after all). Forcing developers into a Walled Garden on one hand, while on the other hand not having the resources to deal with them has the unpleasant side effect of pissing off the developer community. Verizon Wireless, because they've (un-necessarily) set themselves up for a big job which they're not equipped to handle, outsources the screening and quality-control of it's GetItNow content suppliers to an oustside company in another state. They've hired a gardener for their walled garden, but the gardener acts more as a gatekeeper with little interest in the garden! If your garden is truly important to you, at least you should fertilize the flowers and pluck the weeds yourself. Outsourcing (basically bad) decisions that you should never even be making to a 3rd party is a terrible way to manage content.

Probably the best way to manage content is the 'small government' approach of tearing down the walled garden and let the content speak for itself -- directly to the customers. The subscribers should be empowered to choose the winners and losers. The carriers should do nothing more than provide a rubric for content to flow unencumbered towards the subscriber: billing services, storefront management, technical QA of course, a method for superior content to float to the top of the deck (user ratings?), and tools for users to 'discover' content like search and custom UIs. Geez guys, empowering users to choose content has basically worked in Japan and Korea for 7 years. As Reagan famously said: "[Mr. Strigl,] tear down that wall."

The good news is that VZW is making moves towards a lager role in storefront management and discovery, and hopefully a smaller role in deciding for us what content we will or will not like. But back in the former land of autocrats, MTS, a Russian wireless carrier, has found another misguided way to handle the overwhelming task of governing developers and content in the walled garden: MTS plans to end partnerships with some hundreds of minor content providers, and reduce their content partnerships to 70. Great job, guys! That will really open things up, and unleash the creative geniuses that are dreaming up the applications of tomorrow in their garage. Last word of advice to the telcos on behalf of their subscribers: I'm a customer of services and content on my phone. There are developers wishing to offer me this content. If you won't get out of the way, we'll find a way to work around you.
About the Author
Derek Kerton is the Strategy Expert at The Kerton Group, a consulting firm specializing in wireless telecommunications. More online at www.kertongroup.com
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