A thought experiment on the e-reader and tablet ecosystem

Imagine a world in which WordPress, Drupal, MovableType, Plone, Joomla and all other open-source publishing platforms never existed.

In this hypothetical world, media producers have a choice of 2-3 major proprietary platforms with which they must share either a third of their revenue or invest a significant amount of time and money to get their content onto — content which then would reside solely in a walled garden that readers must pay a premium to access.

It’s almost unthinkable now, nearly a decade after the start of the blogging revolution, but this is the world that is quickly taking shape in the emerging tablet and e-reader market.

If Rupert Murdoch’s iPad-only newspaper and Richard Branson’s rival magazine are indicative of what’s to come, we’re looking at a future media landscape that hearkens back to the days of newspaper monopolies: high financial barriers to entry for independent publishers, fewer choices for readers, and a massive slow-down for innovation and creative approaches.

Tim Berners-Lee warns us of this backward-facing trend in his recent call to action:

The tendency for magazines, for example, to produce smartphone “apps” rather than Web apps is disturbing, because that material is off the Web. You can’t bookmark it or e-mail a link to a page within it. You can’t tweet it. It is better to build a Web app that will also run on smartphone browsers, and the techniques for doing so are getting better all the time.

Some people may think that closed worlds are just fine. The worlds are easy to use and may seem to give those people what they want. But as we saw in the 1990s with the America Online dial-up information system that gave you a restricted subset of the Web, these closed, “walled gardens,” no matter how pleasing, can never compete in diversity, richness and innovation with the mad, throbbing Web market outside their gates. If a walled garden has too tight a hold on a market, however, it can delay that outside growth.

Thankfully, community projects like Calibre and OpenInkpot are hard at work bringing open-source alternatives to the table. But they’re going to need more momentum and manpower to overtake the proprietary juggernauts currently dominating the field.

I’m curious as to what the tipping point was for projects like WordPress and Drupal to really take off in terms of exponential community growth and user adoption. (Can anyone in the know chime in here?) Today’s tablet and e-reader ecosystem is in critical need of a similar disruption.


  • Jackie,

    I met you at a journalism that Matters conference in St Petersburg a few years ago. I was very interested what you were up to and how you talked about the work . We are am looking for someone like you to help build a network and help us broaden our. The website above gives a hint. The book Abundant Community gives more.

    Would like to talk to you. If interested, get in touch.

    In any event, I learned a lot for you and am thankful. Looks like you are doing well, which is no surprise.



    • Peter, good to hear from you! Just sent you an e-mail.

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