Open vs. Closed: In the Ongoing Battle Over Control, How Much Is Too Much?

Open vs. Closed. In many ways, it’s a battle that has been at the heart of the technology industry for most of its modern history. Open systems vs. closed systems. Open web vs. walled garden. Open source vs. proprietary standards.

Being open is seen by some as a defining principle of the web and the embodiment of much that is good about technology, whether it’s Wikipedia or Apache web servers or the Android operating system. Those who choose the opposite approach, however, argue that some kind of central control is necessary, and even beneficial for consumers, especially as our increasingly digital world gets more complex. And right now, both sides could be said to be winning, in the sense that both open proponents like Google and proprietary advocates like Apple are attracting users and generating revenue.

Over the next few weeks, GigaOM and its sister sites will be exploring this crucial debate through essays and a series of interviews with thought leaders on both sides of the equation.

Advocates of open say their approach is best because it maximizes creativity, by allowing the greatest number of people to contribute to a project. Open standards, they say, also allow startups to develop new products and services rapidly and cheaply, because they don’t have to wait for a single controlling entity to give its approval, and they don’t have to pay licensing fees. The closed model, according to critics such as Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain, leads to situations like the one that Kindle owners found themselves in last year, when Amazon deleted a book they had bought without even asking their permission (ironically, the book was George Orwell’s “1984”).

Defenders of the proprietary, however, believe that the open model creates chaos, maximizes error and leads to lowest-common denominator design and usability. Freedom from centralized control, they say, results in an absence of standards (or a profusion of competing ones), as well as a lack of discipline and accountability. Central control makes it easier to roll out features and keep a handle on errors, while proprietary standards allow developers to work faster and more efficiently, because they don’t have to support multiple formats or guess where the next upgrade patch is going to come from.

In the world of operating systems, this tension exists between Windows, which is seen as the embodiment of everything centralized and proprietary, and open solutions such as Ubuntu and (more recently) the Chrome OS from Google. In the mobile world, the biggest battle is Apple vs. Google: the latter has the open-source Android operating system, with a totally open app store and development process, while Apple not only controls the code behind the iPhone, but is also notoriously controlling when it comes to its app store, routinely rejecting apps without saying why, and restricting the features they can have — and even the kinds of content they can include.

And yet, as writer Steven Johnson noted in a recent piece in the New York Times, Apple has been more successful than anyone could ever have imagined, despite the fact that it routinely thumbs its nose at the “open is better” crowd. Johnson writes that:

Next to the iPhone platform, Microsoft’s Windows platform looks like a Berkeley commune from the late 60s. And yet, by just about any measure, the iPhone software platform has been, out of the gate, the most innovative in the history of computing.

The same tensions are being played out elsewhere. Facebook has become one of the world’s largest social networks, but not by being open — or at least, not as open as some other web services. Although it provides access to some of its features (such as Facebook Connect) via its API, and is happy to suck information into its service from wherever possible, it is notoriously reluctant to allow much information to flow in the other direction. It controls the terms of service and restrictions on games and other apps with an iron hand, and reserves the right to change its terms on a whim.

In the world of video, meanwhile, there’s a battle underway between Adobe, which controls Flash, the de facto video delivery standard for the web, and (ironically) Apple, which has refused to support Flash on either the iPhone or the iPad and instead has been pushing developers and media distributors towards the open-source HTML5 standard. Meanwhile, on the networking hardware side, Cisco, which has been a vendor using proprietary code for most of its life, has been struggling to find ways to deal with the appetite for open-source solutions in high-speed networking, video conferencing and voice-over-Internet services.

This tension between open and closed runs across many different sectors, and exposes issues that are crucial to the evolution of the technology industry. We hope you will join us in exploring them over the coming weeks.

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