The Great ‘Open v. Closed’ Debate Continues: Google Phone v. Apple iPhone

by on September 28, 2008 · 5 comments

“Hasn’t Steve Jobs learned anything in the last 30 years?” asks Farhad Manjoo of Slate in an interesting piece about “The Cell Phone Wars” currently raging between Apple’s iPhone and the Google’s new G1, Android-based phone. Manjoo wonders if whether Steve Jobs remembers what happen the last time he closed up a platform: “because Apple closed its platform, it was IBM, Dell, HP, and especially Microsoft that reaped the benefits of Apple’s innovations.” Thus, if Jobs didn’t learn his lesson, will he now with the iPhone? Manjoo continues:

Well, maybe he has—and maybe he’s betting that these days, “openness” is overrated. For one thing, an open platform is much more technically complex than a closed one. Your Windows computer crashes more often than your Mac computer because—among many other reasons—Windows has to accommodate a wider variety of hardware. Dell’s machines use different hard drives and graphics cards and memory chips than Gateway’s, and they’re both different from Lenovo’s. The Mac OS, meanwhile, has to work on just a small range of Apple’s rigorously tested internal components—which is part of the reason it can run so smoothly. And why is your PC glutted with viruses and spyware? The same openness that makes a platform attractive to legitimate developers makes it a target for illegitimate ones.

I discussed these issues in greater detail in my essay on”Apple, Openness, and the Zittrain Thesis” and in a follow-up essay about how the Apple iPhone 2.0 was cracked in mere hours. My point in these and other essays is that the whole “open vs. closed” dichotomy is greatly overplayed. Each has its benefits and drawbacks, but there is no reason we need to make a false choice between the two for the sake of “the future of the Net” or anything like that.

In fact, the hybrid world we live in — full of a wide variety of open and proprietary platforms, networks, and solutions — presents us with the best of all worlds. As I argued in my original review of Jonathan Zittrain’s book, “Hybrid solutions often make a great deal of sense. They offer creative opportunities within certain confines in an attempt to balance openness and stability.”  It’s a sign of great progress that we now have different open vs. closed models that appeal to different types of users.  It’s a false choice to imagine that we need to choose between these various models.

Which raises a second point I always stress: There are an infinite number of points along the “open vs. closed” spectrum.  In reality, there are very few products that are perfectly “open” or “closed” out there. These are terms of art, not science.  The iPhone is becoming more “open” with each passing day.  Granted, it’s not as open as the Windows Mobile and certainly not as open as Android, but many people feel those platforms aren’t perfectly open either, or have that they have their own sets of problems.  Bottom line is, you can shop around and find the phone (and level of “openness”) that is right for you. No one is forcing you to buy an iPhone.

Third, efforts to tightly bottle up any technology or business model these days are usually doomed to fail. It’s not just the iPhone that is cracked in mere hours these days; seemingly every new gadget and service has a small army of hackers waiting to pounce when the product doesn’t do everything that consumers want it to. It’s getting harder and harder for product developers to “cripple” or limit functionality out of the gate.  They either offer it immediately or someone else we make sure it is offered for them.

Fourth and final point: The proper policy position with regards to the “open vs. closed” debate should be one of techno-agnosticism.  Lawmakers and courts should not be tilting the balance in one direction or the other.  Let the great experiment (and debate) continue.

  • MikeRT

    I'm not sure that the typical “open versus closed” argument even applies to this one because Apple's behavior has just been stupid beyond words in the restrictions that they have placed on developers. I think their goal has been to greatly discourage casual developers from getting involved, but some of their restrictions serve to keep serious developers from being able to ramp up for serious iPhone development. Furthermore, open… closed… it doesn't matter when one considers the arbitrary and capricious nature of the way that Apple selects products that it will allow to be sold on the App Store. Their policy so far, seems to include the principle that if it competes with any of their software, without being radically different, it's not going to be sold through their channels.

    All in all, based on Apple's behavior, their platform is not worth developing for. Sure, it has a lot of potential for revenue, but that's only if you are able to figure out everything you need to know without breaking the non-Disclosure Agreement and make it into their App Store. Given the fact that Apple may move into any product segment, at any time with regard to their iPhone, it's entirely possible that your software could find itself in the middle of their crosshairs.

    Furthermore, it's debatable as to whether or not a more open platform is really that bad compared to a closed one. Windows actually doesn't have anywhere near the stability problems it used to have because OEMs have begun to rely on mainstream vendors who have the resources to make properly tested device drivers. Most of the problems that people used to have with Windows came from using hardware made by some fly-by-night manufacturer; it's really not much of an issue anymore (and I say this from my new MacBook Pro).

    The key to Apple's success been their ability to write good software, not the open-closed nature of their software. Microsoft does the same thing with its development tools; a Microsoft development environment is incredibly hard to beat because everything just works together the way a developer would expect.

  • MikeRT

    I'm not sure that the typical “open versus closed” argument even applies to this one because Apple's behavior has just been stupid beyond words in the restrictions that they have placed on developers. I think their goal has been to greatly discourage casual developers from getting involved, but some of their restrictions serve to keep serious developers from being able to ramp up for serious iPhone development. Furthermore, open… closed… it doesn't matter when one considers the arbitrary and capricious nature of the way that Apple selects products that it will allow to be sold on the App Store. Their policy so far, seems to include the principle that if it competes with any of their software, without being radically different, it's not going to be sold through their channels.

    All in all, based on Apple's behavior, their platform is not worth developing for. Sure, it has a lot of potential for revenue, but that's only if you are able to figure out everything you need to know without breaking the non-Disclosure Agreement and make it into their App Store. Given the fact that Apple may move into any product segment, at any time with regard to their iPhone, it's entirely possible that your software could find itself in the middle of their crosshairs.

    Furthermore, it's debatable as to whether or not a more open platform is really that bad compared to a closed one. Windows actually doesn't have anywhere near the stability problems it used to have because OEMs have begun to rely on mainstream vendors who have the resources to make properly tested device drivers. Most of the problems that people used to have with Windows came from using hardware made by some fly-by-night manufacturer; it's really not much of an issue anymore (and I say this from my new MacBook Pro).

    The key to Apple's success been their ability to write good software, not the open-closed nature of their software. Microsoft does the same thing with its development tools; a Microsoft development environment is incredibly hard to beat because everything just works together the way a developer would expect.

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