Information lock-up

Back in the early 1990s, before the World Wide Web, Internet companies such as AOL, Compuserve and Prodigy operated as “walled gardens,” subsets of the wider Internet. Users could travel freely within the gardens, but they couldn’t experience the wider Internet in its entirety.

The Web browser, which opened up the wider Internet to people, changed all that, and the AOLs of the world were forced to change their business practices.

Now, Marc Andreessen, who used the Netscape browser to help tear down walled gardens, says he fears that Internet users are once again getting locked into disadvantageous relationships with companies.

Speaking at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco, Andreessen said Internet companies are implicitly locking users into long-term relationships by not allowing user profiles and other information to be portable from one company to another. He pointed to eBay as an example of a company that has a lot of user information that cannot be transfered to another Web company. But he could have also been alluding to the raft of Internet companies in recent weeks — Amazon, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves — that unveiled services intended to entice people to store bookmarks, search histories and other vital pieces of information on their servers.

“Even transferring mail from one service provider to another is strikingly hard,” Andreessen said, characterizing some Internet companies as “plantation owners.” “The amount of information lock-up is significant. Most of the large Internet companies are closed, and it makes sense because there are business advantages. But it’s the form of lockup for the next 10 years.”

Andreessen also said that he believed that Google was being “led by its nose” into a battle with Microsoft. And who’s doing the leading? The media, users and the Web community, he said.

“Everyone is spoiling for a fight. I’ve seen it before,” he said, alluding to his famed battle with Netscape over browsers.

Dan Rosenweig, Yahoo’s COO, shared the stage with Andreessen and agreed, saying that all the hype about search engine wars and whatnot is only relevant to outsiders, not the companies themselves.

“All this tech talk is fun for the bloggers and 12 people who are affected by it,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we’re focused on what users want and providing better products. And that’s what people should focus on.”