Book Review: The Master Switch

by Ian Rosenwach on 3.20.2011

I’ll confess – the middle 150 pages or so of “The Master Switch”, by Tim Wu, went by slowly. But the final 100 pages more than make up for it.

Wu covers the emergence of communications empires from telegraph to telephone, radio to broadcast TV, and cable TV to the Internet. He provides context on the regulatory environment, business models, people involved, and technical breakthroughs at play during each shift. Cultural issues related to these changes are touched upon, but that’s a story for another book. It naturally follows that as people diversify their attention stream and consume a broader range of content, we have less in common as a society.

The Master Switch clearly explains the immense power and influence that comes with owning communications network.

A few things I learned:

  • When asked what he would do differently at AOL, Steve Case stated “I would have bought Google.” Case didn’t realize at the time that Google would be the gateway to Internet content, and not AOL.
  • How similar the emergence of the cable TV industry is to the emergence of the Internet. In both cases a broader range of content became available to consumers; we could call it content fragmentation. The two industries share the belief that consumers should have access to a broad range of content – they are there to provide it.
  • I also haven’t read a clearer explanation of the philosophical differences of Apple (closed network) and Google (open network).

All in all – a good book but prepare for some slow moments!

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