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The Perpetual Peril of Open Platforms

Over at Techdirt, Mike Masnick did a great post a few weeks back on a theme I’ve written about before: peoples’ tendency to underestimate the robustness of open platforms.

Once people have a taste for what that openness allows, stuffing it back into a box is very difficult. Yes, it’s important to remain vigilant, and yes, people will always attempt to shut off that openness, citing all sorts of “dangers” and “bad things” that the openness allows. But, the overall benefits of the openness are recognized by many, many people—and the great thing about openness is that you really only need a small number of people who recognize its benefits to allow it to flourish.

Closed systems tend to look more elegant at first—and often they are much more elegant at first. But open systems adapt, change and grow at a much faster rate, and almost always overtake closed systems, over time. And, once they overtake the closed systems, almost nothing will allow them to go back. Even if it were possible to turn an open system like the web into a closed system, openness would almost surely sneak out again, via a new method by folks who recognized how dumb it was to close off that open system.

Predictions about the impending demise of open systems have been a staple of tech policy debates for at least a decade. Larry Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace is rightly remembered as a landmark work of tech policy scholarship for its insights about the interplay between “East Coast code” (law) and “West Coast code” (software). But people often forget that it also made some fairly specific predictions. Lessig thought that the needs of e-commerce would push the Internet toward a more centralized architecture: a McInternet that squeezed out free speech and online anonymity.

So far, at least, Lessig’s predictions have been wide of the mark. The Internet is still an open, decentralized system that allows robust anonymity and free speech. But the pessimistic predictions haven’t stopped. Most recently, Jonathan Zittrain wrote a book predicting the impending demise of the Internet’s “generativity,” this time driven by security concerns rather than commercialization.

It’s possible that these thinkers will be proven right in the coming years. But I think it’s more likely that these brilliant legal thinkers have been mislead by a kind of optical illusion created by the dynamics of the marketplace. The long-term trend has been a steady triumph for open standards: relatively open technologies like TCP/IP, HTTP, XML, PDF, Java, MP3, SMTP, BitTorrent, USB, and x86, and many others have become dominant in their respective domains. But at any given point in time, a disproportionate share of public discussion is focused on those sectors of the technology industry where open and closed platforms are competing head-to-head. After all, nobody wants to read news stories about, say, the fact that TCP/IP’s market share continues to be close to 100 percent and has no serious competition. And at least superficially, the competition between open and closed systems looks really lopsided: the proprietary options tend to be supported by large, deep-pocketed companies with large development teams, multi-million dollar advertising budgets, distribution deals with leading retailers, and so forth. It’s not surprising that people so frequently conclude that open standards are on the verge of getting crushed.

For example, Zittrain makes the iPhone a poster child for the flashy but non-generative devices he fears will come to dominate the market. And it’s easy to see the iPhone’s advantages. Apple’s widely-respected industrial design department created a beautiful product. Its software engineers created a truly revolutionary user interface. Apple and AT&T both have networks of retail stores with which to promote the iPhone, and Apple is spending millions of dollars airing television ads. On first glance, it looks like open technologies are on the ropes in the mobile marketplace.

But open technologies have a kind of secret weapon: the flexibility and power that comes from decentralization. The success of the iPhone is entirely dependent on Apple making good technical and business decisions, and building on top of proprietary platforms requires navigating complex licensing issues. In contrast, absolutely anyone can use and build on top of an open platform without asking anyone else for permission, and without worrying about legal problems down the line. That means that at any one time, you have a lot of different people trying a lot of different things on that open platform. In the long run, the creativity of millions of people will usually exceed that of a few hundred engineers at a single firm. As Mike says, opens systems adapt, change and grow at a much faster rate than closed ones.

Yet much of the progress of open systems tends to happen below the radar. The grassroots users of open platforms are far less likely to put out press releases or buy time for television ads. So often it’s only after an open technology has become firmly entrenched in its market-MySQL in the low-end database market, for example-that the mainstream press starts to take notice of it.

As a result, despite the clear trend toward open platforms in the past, it looks to many people like that pattern is going to stop and perhaps even be reversed. I think this illusion is particularly pronounced for folks who are getting their information second- or third-hand. If you’re judging the state of the technology industry from mainstream media stories, television ads, shelf space at Best Buy, etc, you’re likely not getting the whole story. It’s helpful to remember that open platforms have always looked like underdogs. They’re no more likely to be crushed today than they were in 1999, 1989, or 1979.

By Timothy B. Lee, Adjunct Scholar at the Cato Institute

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Very interesting and misunderstood topic. Thanks Timothy Alex Tajirian  –  Jan 19, 2009 9:30 PM

Very interesting and misunderstood topic. Thanks Timothy for bringing it up.

Open and closed platforms can viably exist in harmony. For a simple predictive model for an optimal adoption decision see:

(1)  Pisano and Verganti, “Which Kind of Collaboration is Right for You?” Harvard Business Review, December 2008, pp 78-86.

(2)  Nambisan and Sawhney, The Global Brain, p. 59.

For a case commentary on open source, see Wilson and Kambil, “Open Source: Salvation or Suicide?” Harvard Business Review, April 2008, pp.40-3.

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