“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.