This blog post could have been titled “We don’t live in the universe of maximum probability“, but that didn’t sound quite as exciting.
This weekend, I was having a friendly debate with a close friend about the state of the open web, when the now typical issue rose up: Apple, it’s support of native applications, and the resulting impact on the web. I immediately thought about the fact that, in the 1990s, we would have never have dreamed of the technology landscape of 2010 — a landscape where Apple was the dominant force in mobile computing. A world where we would see a massive resurgence and interest in client applications (yes, that’s what those pretty iPhone and Android apps are). A world where Apple was the most valuable technology company in the world.
Then it hit me. The parallel to one of the best science fiction stories of all time. In fact, it’s the story that led to the name of this blog.
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.
Asimov’s Foundation is based on the future history of the Galaxy, when a lone scientist, Hari Seldon, invents a new science called “Psychohistory“, that allows him to predict the future. This science allows him to project that the Galactic Empire will crumble and bring about 30,000 years of dark ages. Instead, he develops a plan to create a “Foundation” to preserve knowledge, and reduce the period of regression to a mere 1000 years. Unfortunately, his plan is disrupted by an unpredicted complication.
Check out this synopsis from wikipedia, and see if it sounds familiar:
The Mule is a fictional character from Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation series. One of the greatest conquerors the galaxy has ever seen, he is a mentalic who has the ability to reach into the minds of others and “adjust” their emotions, individually or en masse, using this capability to forcibly enlist them to his cause. Individuals who have their emotions adjusted behave otherwise normally, with their logic, memories and personality intact; even if they are aware of the manipulation, they are unable to desire to resist it. This gives the Mule the capacity to disrupt Seldon’s plan by invalidating Seldon’s assumption that no single individual could have a measurable effect on galactic socio-historical trends on their own, due to the plan relying on the predictability of action of very large numbers of people.
Tell me that doesn’t sound like Steve Jobs. You can read the full article here.
- “Steve Jobs” for “The Mule”
- “Apple” for “The Union of Worlds”
- “The Open Web” for “Seldon’s Plan”
And I think you have a fair approximation of what’s happened in the last five years.
One of the hottest debates in mobile right now is whether to focus on the mobile web or native applications. Ironically, Apple is the one who started this debate, since they were the first company to launch a phone with a truly modern web browser (Mobile Safari), and then proceeded to launch a simple, accessible native application platform on top of it.
In all seriousness, the reason that the native applications on the iPhone (and iPod / iPad) are such a viable threat is due to the fact that they are working. When I say working, I mean that any company who takes their mobile web property, and then deploys a native iPhone application, tends to see a significant boost in their engagement metrics. Apple has solved a distribution and engagement problem for mobile applications at an unprecedented scale, and it shows in the numbers. Metrics usually speak louder than philosophy when making tactical decisions, which is why you see the incredible investment and interest in native applications for iOS devices.
In the story, the Mule is defeated by the Second Foundation, and rendered harmless and without ambition. He dies without a successor, hence the name “The Mule”.
I think the question we should all be asking at this point is, “Is there a Second Foundation?“