The age of semi-closed, but consumer-friendly IT

Open/closedSome parts of the tech world reacted very harshly to Apple’s recent iPad announcement. The most frequently voiced criticism, apart from lacking features, was that Apple is trying to force consumers into the closed iTunes ecosystem. Apple’s hardware and content delivery platform are tightly coupled, so people who buy an iPad realistically can only buy music, books, movies and apps that are approved by Apple.

But if the success of the iPod and iPhone are any indication, consumers actually seem to like this closed system that just works and removes complexity. I actually believe that Apple is just the most aggressive, but by no means only company that is pushing the trend towards simpler, consumer-friendly IT.

Consumer products have to be simple. Consumers buy products, not systems. But that also means that consumer products are typically not “open” in the way a Linux machine is. The way of the future in IT could be semi-closed systems that are tightly controlled by a vendor, but tap into open platforms for some key functionality.

There are many examples for this in the non-IT world. A BMW 7 series runs on the same fuel as a Toyota Prius and has a “user interface” that is largely similar, but apart from that, these two vehicles are completely different. Nobody would expect BMW spare parts to work in a Prius. So cars share a common, open infrastructure (the system of filling stations that sell standardized types of gas) and common user interface conventions (a steering wheel, accelerator pedal etc.), but the actual products are strongly proprietary. Another example: A Miele dishwasher runs on the same electricity and fits into the same standardized kitchen slot as a GE product, but otherwise, these two products are very different.

My favorite quote about technology is typically attributed to Antoine de St.Exupéry:
“Technology always develops from the primitive via the complicated to the simple.”

The early personal computers were clearly primitive. They were closed systems (forget about running C64 games on a TI 99/4a) and didn’t do much.

But then came the IBM PC, which more by accident than by design turned into an open platform. Suddenly people were able to run the same software on PCs made by many different manufacturers, and even peripherals and extension cards could be used on pretty much any “IBM-compatible” PC. This sounds and is great, but it led to a lot of complexity. Almost three decades after the introduction of the IBM PC, users still struggle with driver issues, compatibility problems and bloated systems because Windows has to support so many variations of hardware and software. Openness also turned out to be a bad business decision for the actual PC manufacturers, since it commoditized PC design. The winners were the two companies who were able to control the remaining proprietary elements, Microsoft and Intel.

Are we now entering an era of simplicity in IT that gives up some of this openness for other gains? That’s very well possible. And Apple is by no means the only example. Other successful products and services in the consumer market follow a similar approach:

  • Facebook is by far the most successful web platform currently, but also very closed. It actively strives to extend its ecosystem to other parts of the web, for instance by promoting its Facebook Connect login service.
  • The other rapidly growing smartphone platform next to the iPhone, RIM’s BlackBerry, is not any more open than Apple’s ecosystem.
  • Game consoles by Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft have always been closed, tightly controlled systems.
  • Google is an interesting special case. Although the company emphasizes openness in many of its activities, it is very closed when it comes to its central money making machine, Google Search. Both Yahoo and Bing offer relatively open APIs, while Google restricts very strongly what developers can do with its search results.

What these examples have in common: They all use open infrastructure (the Internet) and share some common approaches with their competitors, but apart from that, they’re all tightly controlled systems. And the interesting thing is that consumers seem to like it that way.

A well-designed, simple, reliable product trumps openness in the consumer market. There are plenty of social networks that are more open than Facebook, but guess who dominates social networking? You can buy a Linux-based smartphone that is completely open, but most people go for iPhones and BlackBerries. Most games are available on open PCs, but the closed consoles still dominate the gaming market.

So is this trend away from openness in IT a bad thing? Not necessarily.

The effectiveness of IT actually increases with more simplicity. People working in IT departments might not like it because it jeopardizes their job security, but a simpler computer is actually a better computer. Fewer technical problems mean that resources can be spent on something that actually creates value instead of just fixing shortcomings. That’s just economically efficient.

But doesn’t a lack of openness kill innovation? Again, not necessarily. The last few decades suggest that a focus on openness is actually bad for business. For instance, Sun Microsystems has always been one of the proponents of open systems. It opened its Java platform, but never turned it into a business. The result: Sun was just devoured by Oracle, which doesn’t win any awards for openness. Another example: Red Hat built a sizable business on open Linux technology and invests a lot into the open source community. That’s great, but it sells as much software in a year as Microsoft does in four days.

The point is: Innovation needs capital. Capital can only be obtained if there is a way to protect investments and turn them into a lucrative business. And full openness doesn’t really help with that. The open source movement has achieved many great things and creates a lot of value. But it has not come up with true break-through innovation yet. Openness is a strategy that makes things cheaper, not one that brings entirely new things into the world.

In the end, total openness vs. closed systems is a false dichotomy. As in the examples of cars and dishwashers, there will always be open standards and a public infrastructure that is needed to make products useful. And that’s exactly where consumer IT is going. The iPad is way more open than early home computers. It can access the entire web, using open standards. But at the same time, it restricts other things for the sake of simplicity and reliability (and commercial feasibility, such as the DRM unfortunately still required by movie studios and book publishers).

Very likely, that’s a blueprint for the future of IT. Technology should serve a purpose for its users, not follow some theoretical philosophy.

(Photo: dreamglow, CC license)