Walled Gardens

A walled garden repels visitors.

Walled Gardens is one of the most important metaphors around on the Internet and probably for the foreseeable future. It’s also one of the most apt. The original meaning was a garden surrounded by a wall, as you might expect. The new version, according to Wikipedia, is described as follows:
A walled garden, when referring to media content, refers to a closed set or exclusive set of information services provided for users (a method of creating a monopoly or securing an information system). This is in contrast to providing consumers access to the open Internet for content and e-commerce.

Hugh MacLeod of gavingvoid has one of his usual pithy cartoons to explain what it’s all about. At least that’s what the owners of walled gardens would hope would happen. However building a wall around your garden can be a two-edged sword, to mix metaphors. It keeps people in but it also keeps people out. Provided the garden is so rich and pleasurable that no one would ever wish to leave, then it may work well for those who are inside. However as SeachSecurity.com points out, some may regard the walled garden as a “walled prison”.

This is one of the two main concerns of the “walled garden approach”. It really links in with the whole Permission Marketing philosophy. Permission Marketing starts from the premise that the customer is in control. More and more companies have adopted this philosophy since it was described by Seth Godin in 1999. Some walled gardens are very much appreciated by their visitors, since it may keep out less desirable visitors. Provided that this has value and outweighs any frustrations for visitors created by the walls, then such a walled garden is consistent with Permission Marketing. Not all walled gardens are so appreciated by their visitors. In some cases, the visitor must accept distressing constraints imposed by the walls in order to get some other desirable benefits only available in the walled garden. In this case, the walled garden is operating in a quasi-monopolistic way.

This might seem to create serious problems. However these can be handled if the walled garden owner is astute. Dave Gilbert who is involved in the GNU Classpath project for open source Java recently wrote, “Remarkably and fantastically, Sun has announced plans to bridge the gap between what we have now, and what we’d like to have, outside of Sun’s walled garden. They’re not taking down their walled garden just yet (nor should they), but they’re creating a level playing field outside of it, which is a very smart, brave, and generous move.”

An even more worrying concern about walled gardens is their tendency to isolate their inhabitants from the rest of the world. To operate effectively in the widest space possible requires that most often processes should operate according to generally accepted standards. On the other hand, within a walled garden, there is no need to follow accepted standards. The rules can even be set by the walled garden. This might be considered an advantage to the walled garden but is also a penalty in that it may deter some visitors from entering. It may also reinforce the differences and delay any efforts on creating standards.

These two major problems means that the walled garden approach may have serious problems in the longer term, even though it may seem economically attractive in the shorter term. It is interesting that as time goes on, AOL (America On Line), the most celebrated example of a walled garden is gradually lowering the walls.

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