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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