Sep 23, 2016 ยท 4 minutes

Monday we published an in depth Q&A with JibJab CEO Gregg Spiridellis about his life spent monetizing comedy videos since the days of 56k modems.

Recently, he has shifted his entire project roadmap to the iMessage platform. The big breakthrough, in his view: Apple allowing developers to have their functionality inside the messenger window and doesn’t require you to stop messaging friends and go download an app to use that third party app’s features. Spiridellis calls it the biggest opportunity for developers since the Facebook Platform opened in 2007.

But buried in his excitement and at the very end of the Q&A there was a note of bittersweet caution: This may be the most exciting opportunity for developers he’s seen in his 17 years building JibJab, but it’s also the most closed and controlled.

iMessage is a closed ecosystem. We grew up in the Web where it was all open. iMessage is so closed and so controlled, but you say “My God, they have 500 million to 1 billion monthly active users.” I mean no one really knows what the answer is, but it’s gotta be around there and because it’s so closed and so controlled, if we can actually build a really good user experience, we can build something really valuable. 

Spiridellis was lucky that he already had the functionality built, betting on the fact that messaging platforms were going to open up. He was lucky that he produces tools to make self-expressive videos: Kinda what makes messaging go around right now. And he was lucky that he had a track record working well within platforms— one of the only developers I’ve never heard bitch about Facebook, and featured on stage when Facebook’s Messenger opened up.

Other developers hoping to cash in on this great opportunity may not be so lucky.

It’s quite a contrast— clocked in the lifespan of one pre-IPO startup— to go from wild and wide open Web to something so controlled and closed. The last major consumer platform that I remember being wildly open was Twitter, and a lot of the management will tell you it was a mistake. Developers were subsequently clawed back. Even Facebook, for all of its flaws, still allowed anyone to build for its platform. They just reserved the right to change the rules on you constantly.

While few Silicon Valley die hards will champion closed ecosystems, in a sense, we’ve gotten the ecosystem we— developers, entrepreneurs, VCs and users— deserve.

Developers are frequently less technical than they were in the 1990s or earlier eras, because they don’t have to be. There’s a pre-existing stack to build on top of. The era of Bill Gates super nerd coders has given way to the era of brass knuckled, bro’d out disrupters. Entrepreneurs and VCs adore the quick and easy vitality of these platforms, and the rapidity with which you can tell if a consumer product is going to be a hit or not. In the early days of JibJab, the company had to rely on email forwards to make its political videos go viral. But with that came a benefit: It was more impressive when it did, and the video had more shelf life.

As Spiridellis remarked Monday, a single viral video “This Land Is Your Land” landed them on talk shows and got them named one of Peter Jenning’s “people of the year.” Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had that honor the year before. Today, if you get a video to go viral, you’d be lucky to be remembered long enough to be parodied in a First Round Capital video.

There’s no such patience anymore. Entrepreneurs are infuriated at how hard discovery is in the App Store. Try getting a product out in a pre-Facebook, pre-Google world.

And then there’s the role users have played in creating this world: Lead like mice by the pipe-playing Steve Jobs we all want beautiful user experiences above anything else. And that means a single company exerting control. Apple eventually beat Microsoft by controlling hardware and software after all.

The same way we’ve happily given up privacy for the right to have free convenient consumer products, so too have we given up— no, demanded— that the chaos of developer free-for-alls be exchanged for beauty, ease of use, and simplicity. This is after all why Facebook says it keeps changing the rules of its platform: To benefit users. And they are right: Our feeds are better not cluttered with spammy Zynga-invite techniques and “YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE!” headlines.

A lot has been made of just how dominant Google and Facebook have become when it comes to display ads online-- controlling upwards of 75% of the market and growing. Given the Internet was supposed to be about democratizing industries and dolling out chunks among the masses, it’s a staggering amalgamation of riches and power-- more so than we saw in the offline world.

It took the Internet a few decades for power to become so concentrated. Mobile is starting that way out of the gate.