Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Open Systems vs. Closed Systems: Is There Only One Answer?

The following is an e-mail I sent to Fred Wilson based on his stream of blog postings on open systems vs. closed systems discussion he and Dave Winer have been having. While Dave and Fred go back and forth on what the purpose of blogging is (be sure to read the comments on that post), I thought I would weigh-in with a different approach to the question. I went with e-mail rather than commenting because I'm turning over a new leaf where if my comment is longer than the original post, I'm not going with the "comment" route.
Anytime things are framed on the poles, it’s a polarizing discussion. While I quite often embrace the polarity, generally speaking I prefer communication that doesn’t frame things in this way because it’s hard to get to “the truth” sometimes from the poles. For example, PETA will actually lobby against the “Got Milk” lobby. It winds up being more or less framed as “steak, cheese, milk and leather apparel” or “happy cows”? Pick a side.

It’s a fine way to address situations if your goal is to work people into a frenzy, polarize them and have them pick a side. The problem of course is that just as there is zero proof that adults need cow’s milk or that cow’s milk is more beneficial for adults than other forms of calcium, there is no proof to suggest that if we don’t eat, drink or wear the cow there will be happy cows. In fact, if we don’t eat, drink or wear the cow, there will be almost no cows at all. Somehow, I suppose framing it as “do we want to treat the cows better or do we want there to be no cows at all” is not conducive to good results for either side. But framing it that way does get much closer to the real truth of the issue.

Open versus closed takes on that kind of logic with me because there is a lot involved. It seems that when things are mature, open is vastly preferred. However, when things are not mature, it seems like closed systems can be a great first step in the progression to open systems.

Case in point, the iPhone. What really differentiates this device is that it really is software driven. It’s a closed, proprietary system, yet in getting that control Apple did something nobody else did: created a true mobile operating system without much in the way of limitation. Apple wound up with the leverage to say, we’re putting an OS on the thing that will take over 3/4ths of a GB of flash memory. Microsoft didn’t have this luxury when creating Windows Mobile (which is also closed, just easier to license). The message to Microsoft was more “give us an OS that will work on our phones”. The iPhone is much more “make a phone that will work on our software.”

While this is closed, the advantages of software driven “mobile computing” are pretty clear and anyone with a mind to compete can compete. While I think Apple has an advantage via the head start, the space will wind up being competitive, both from Microsoft and from others (and theoretically the WebOS folks should have some advantages with software driven mobile computing). It seems like over time, if I am right and the truly software-driven approach wins, things will push towards being more open. But, I don’t think it’s “bad” that Apple was able to do this as a closed system. In fact, I think it’s good, because by taking the control we get to see what truly software driven mobile computing is about.

Subtracting out the notion that I can’t currently get exactly what I want (any media streamed to any device), things are definitely tracking in the direction and other than my ability to get what I want “right now”, things seem to be progressing the way they should.

Again, I do strongly believe that as things mature, open systems are better than closed systems. But I do not believe that closed systems are always or inherently bad. I see them sometimes as a logical part of growth and maturation.

If you disagree, I’d really love to hear your logic.

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