Musings on open and closed

By March 16, 2010Apple, Innovation


Last week in a post about Apple and Android mobile OS market share I wrote that:

Something deep inside me that I am starting to think may not be entirely rational prefers open to closed, so I’m pleased by the early signs of Android’s success.

and James Penman commented:

Hi Nic,
You normally choose your words very carefully so I’m fascinated by the clause: ‘Something deep inside me that I am starting to think may not be entirely rational prefers open to closed’. Would love to read a blog post unpacking that as it suggests a change, or the beginnings of change, in outlook presumably driven by experience?

I’ve been mulling this question over in my mind since then and I think the reason I’m starting to question my preference for open over closed is that (as with so many things) when you get into it the whole debate is too complex and nuanced to simply come down on one side or the other.

I think my dislike of closed comes from watching big companies operate closed systems to promote their own interests to the detriment of innovation and startups.  Mobile operators loom large in my mind here – the way they controlled the content that could be accessed via the phone on their networks and tried to take a big slice of any revenues held back mobile innovation for years.  IBM and Microsoft have at times played similar games too, and now Apple is doing the same thing with their App Store application approval process.

I also dislike content and consumer device companies pushing closed DRM’d systems which offer a worse consumer experience because they hope to lock you into their platforms.  The Kindle is the latest device to get my goat in this regard.

Finally, the open source revolution has been a boon to everyone.

The shift in my thinking comes from a growing appreciation of the power of closed systems to drive game changing innovation.  Two big examples – it took the iPhone to break the mobile operators control over wireless networks, and it was AOL’s closed system that got the web moving for many people in the 1990s.

Similarly I have been experimenting with the FitBit this year and I have liked what their proprietary hardware and closed web service has allowed me to do (the devices keep breaking though…).

Thinking further forward Apple have just hired a ‘Senior Prototype Engineer’ to work on wearable clothing.  This guy (Richard DeVaul) has previously wrote a dissertation on Memory Glasses – a heads up display that provides memory support.  DeVaul describes the results of his work:

The short version is that I can improve your performance on a memory recall task by a factor of about 63% without distracting you, in fact without you being aware that I’m doing anything at all. Even more interesting is that giving you wrong information subliminally doesn’t seem to mess you up.

I want some of those!  And I’m also reasonably convinced I’m likely to see them sooner as part of a closed and proprietary system.

To generalise, the obvious conclusion to all this is that closed is appropriate early on in the evolution of a market and open is better later on.  Maybe the reason the debate evokes so much passion is the moment of transition is painful for individuals who are asked to ditch their loyalty to the closed systems of which they were early adopters and embrace the messy chaos of open systems which offer the promise of greater richness but maybe less utility out of the box.

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  • In an era of platform based apps, how much of this stems from companies wanting to keep closed until their platform shows signs of becoming the new Twitter or Facebook? Is opening up the new tipping point?

  • Hi Andrew – I suspect most services tip before they open up. Cheers, Nic

  • Conrad

    I think you are right that there is a place for open and closed depending on the maturity of the particular market. It seems to me that the advantage of closed in the early stage is that a single player in the value chain can determine the direction and streamline the customer experience, which is essential if you want to build adoption in the mass market, rather than just the tech savy power users. I'd say that this has been in the case in the evolution of mobile applications where the distribution of responsibilities (or ambitions) between handset manufacturer and operator resulted in a compromised customer experience until a single player Apple imposed a structure

  • I think that is spot on. Thanks Conrad.

  • Hi Nic,
    Nice post. My specific interest is with publishing houses which, despite having recently restructured to ‘go digital’, persist in chasing the 5million potential iPad users as opposed to 2billion and counting web users (Marc A quote a few posts back). The above fits nicely.

  • As you know, I'm a big advocate of open. But I strongly believe that closed is required to open a market, before critical mass is reached (both of developers/app providers and consumers) and then open takes off.
    A good example is Facebook, which, opening its API allowed the emergence of social games which accelerated the widening of the gap with MySpace.
    Closed, however, is always key at the start.
    I wonder if Apple's tragedy is that it is doomed to create markets that it then fails to dominate in the long run.

  • I think you are spot on with the timing analysis. It is a bit harsh to describe Apple as a tragedy though 🙂

  • Like the mobile operators publishers find it hard to accept a future where their margins/industry get much smaller – so they attempt to control the value chain to the detriment of innovation and ultimately themselves – as I think I've said before. These apparently irrational decisions are a by product of viewing the world through strange coloured glasses 🙂

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