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

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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 (s amzn) 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.

[related-posts align=”right”] 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 (s goog). In the mobile world, the biggest battle is Apple (s aapl) 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 (s adbe), 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 (s csco), 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.

40 Responses to “Open vs. Closed: In the Ongoing Battle Over Control, How Much Is Too Much?”

  1. Wow, just came across this while looking for something else (don’t you love when that happens) and coincidentally, I have scheduled a special PARC Forum ( speaker series this summer around the theme of “OPEN”… with top thought leader/practitioner perspectives on open source, open manufacturing, open government, open leadership, open innovation, and more. The talks are free, open to the public, and also available online.

    But I’ll keep you posted and/or get in touch to see if you want to attend, do an introduction, or cover the theme…

  2. Wow, just came across this and coincidentally, we have scheduled a special PARC Forum (www.parc.coom/forum) series this summer around the theme of “OPEN”… with perspectives in open source, open manufacturing, open government, open leadership, open innovation, and more. I’ll keep you posted and/or get in touch to see if you want to attend, do an introduction, or cover the theme.

  3. Mathew – very timely topic that cuts across every area of technology, from mobile to cloud computing, big data, and others. Looking forward to your discussion.

    In examining the success and different approaches to OS business strategies over the last few months, here are a couple of analysts whose persepctives I’ve found especially useful.

    Matt Aslett at 451 Group – see and especially for a good discussion of different OS models.

    Stephen O’Grady at Red Monk – see “What is an ‘Open Source Company?’ The Billion Dollar Question” at

  4. PXLated

    I’m a dummy when it comes to the details of open-source licensing so a question for you all…
    I was told that the Android license is basically all can use, all can change, and all can contribute back to the source but are “not” required to. Similar to the way there is a bunch of open-source beneath OSX but all additions/changes are proprietary to Apple. True?

    • PXLated – Yes, Android is actually Open Source. It’s based on the Linux kernel and modified for mobile devices. It wasn’t always Google’s — Google bought Android.

      • PXLated

        Thanks Mike – Was somewhat aware of that. But, does that mean it has the exact same license terms as Linux or is Android more like BSD as I heard?

  5. This will be an ongoing debate – Every business model is different and thus warrants a different approach. Being open can sometimes be viewed as a security threat, with the code open and viewable, allowing hackers to seek out vulnerabilities faster. Some disagree, saying that being open can be a benefit to security (in this reference of security I mean within software) because there are more eyeballs and resources able to put together stronger widely tested code.

    Then of course outside security, the licensing model is huge. We see many companies that live and breate based on “closed” software, generating most revenue from licensing. Then we have companies that provide free “open source” software that mainly genrate revenue from services and support.

    There will be a mix of open and closed for a long time as both models have their appropriate place withing industries.

  6. Well im definately looking forward to those upcoming articles and maybe even more to the following discussions in the comment section.

    I personally don’t think that this issue can be settled (ever).
    Both approaches have their benefits and weaknesses.
    Maybe we should concentrate more on how to combine both approaches to get the most out of any given application.

    • Chris K

      I agree. You should see the arguments the gamers get into when talking about pcgaming vs console gaming. It’s an endless debate.

      There’s tradeoffs to both of those platforms much like there are tradeoffs for either Android or the Iphone.

    • And neither will Adobe or Google give up control on things that are at the core of their business model.

      A possibly better way of looking at this is that each will be closed in areas in which it aims to differentiate, monetize, and profit, AND open in areas in which it aims to commoditize (or at least not get locked out by others, including monopolists).

  7. iPhone is not closed.
    All are welcome.

    But the open v closed debate is awfully 1998. Not sure it’s a relevant discussion now. I want what I want when I want it where I want it.

    Who does this better? If it’s a ‘closed’ iPhone, as I believe, then I’m a user.

      • PXLated

        I look at the iPhone/iPad as generally being open as anyone that wants to learn the code can write/submit an app – Yes, Apple has some restrictions and screws up once in a while and rejects a good app.

        What I think will be interesting is if Android will be overrun with potentially bad stuff (malware, etc) if it truly remains open. I think most are sick of dealing with systems like Windows that were.

      • The “all are welcome” was my sly catholic reference — thus, it requires faith, subservience to the Pope etc etc etc.

        I do not think open vs closed fully captures people’s notions of how and when and for what purposes they wish to access content. But, it was a needlessly snarky comment. I’m sure I’ll be reading the series;-)

  8. PXLated

    Not sure the Google (open) vs Apple (closed) is necessarily accurate. I mean, can I use the Google search algorithms and incorporate them into my products? Both have (and support) both open & closed.

    • That’s a great point — in some cases, different parts of a company support different sides in this debate. That’s part of what makes it interesting. Are there times when companies want to be open, and others when they want to be closed?

  9. Flash opens up nearly every device to every video producer. And the WhatWG’s descriptions of Apple’s implementations are now being evaluated by the W3C, not yet “an open-source standard”. There’s more than a single way to look at “open vs closed” here.

    tx, jd/adobe