Messaging’s middleware moment

Back in the mid-1990s Microsoft missed out on the web as a nascent platform. In fact the first edition of The Road Ahead that Bill Gates wrote alongside Nathan Myhrvold and Peter Rinearson saw the Internet as one of the “important precursors of the information highway…suggestive of [its] future” (p. 89); he noted that the “popularity of the Internet is the most important single development in the world of computing since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981” (p. 91) but “today’s Internet is not the information highway I imagine, although you can think of it as the beginning of the highway“, the information highway he envisioned would be as different from the Internet as the Oregon Trail was to Interstate 84.

One reviewer noted that

World Wide Web receives just four index citations and is treated as a functional appendage of the Internet (rather than its driving force)

And for a while Netscape had a clear run at the browser market, building up to one of the largest IPOs ever. One of the things that made Netscape so dangerous was that the browser became the gateway to applications like sales orders, email or looking up a database and the browser became an operating system substitute. It no longer mattered so much if you had a Mac or a PC.  The browser and web effectively became middleware.

I realised last year that messaging services like KakaoTalk, WeChat and LINE were moving beyond messaging to becoming something more. By becoming platforms they could provide a richer experience to users, the integrate:

  • Gaming
  • A blogging-type platform
  • Payments
  • Social commerce
  • Travel information

This looks eerily close to Netscape’s web of middleware positioning in the mid-1990s. Ted Livingston, CEO of Kik outlined just this scenario in an article on the messaging landscape for Techcrunch last week.

Where this gets interesting is when think about what this means for the likes of Google’s Android operating system or Microsoft Windows phone, where the raison d’être of these operating systems is as a gateway to web services (and an audience for mobile advertising). The more functionality that happens inside the messaging application, the less opportunity there is for the likes of Google and Microsoft to direct the consumer towards their advertising inventory.

It corrodes the very reach Google tried to achieve by having its own smartphone operating system and competing with Apple. Google is already under assault in the operating system itself as Chinese vendors like Xiaomi and Oppo alongside Amazon have customised their own operating systems based on Android.  Google services are not provides on a third of Android devices sold already, messaging applications as a platform exasperate the situation further.

More information
After WhatsApp: An Insider’s View On What’s Next In Messaging | TechCrunch
`Road Ahead’: Gates And Our Pc Future | Seattle Times
After WhatsApp: An Insider’s View On What’s Next In Messaging | TechCrunch
Netscape’s Internet OS | Dave Winer
US versus Microsoft: proposed findings of fact | U.S. Department of Justice
Chrome OS: The ghost of Netscape rises to haunt Microsoft | betanews
Netscape complaint | Harvard University Berkman Center Openlaw site
Rise and Fall of Netscape Browsers | Strategic Computing and Communications Technology class archive University of California, Berkeley
The Browser Is The New Operating System | Techdirt