Open vs. Closed: What Does Open Really Mean?

The Open vs. Closed debate, which we’re covering as an ongoing series on the GigaOM Network, continues to bubble and boil around Facebook and the social networking site’s attempts to extend its “social graph” out into the broader web. Is this move by the company truly open, or is it a cynical attempt to co-opt the rest of the web and aggregate value for Facebook — or could it be both? That all depends on what the term “open” really means. Can a company or a service be partly open, or is it a binary thing? Can a service start out as mostly closed and then become open? And is it OK for a company to be open with some things and closed with others?

Chris Dixon, co-founder of Hunch, launched a project last week called Open Like, which he says is intended to jump-start an open standard for recommendations, as an alternative to Facebook’s open graph protocol. After a series of Twitter debates with Keith Rabois — VP of business development for Facebook app maker Slide — and startup investor and adviser Dave McClure about the benefits and meaning of the term “open,” Dixon tried to come up with an overview of the different ways in which companies and platforms can be open as well as the tradeoffs involved by using the following table from Harvard Business School professor Tom Eisenmann:

So, in other words, Windows is open for “demand-side” users and “supply-side” users (developers) but closed when it comes to design and intellectual property, meaning the look and the underlying code can’t be changed or used by anyone other than Microsoft. An open-source platform like Linux, of course, is open in every sense of the word. And while the iPhone is open for users, it’s closed to developers and anyone who wants to change the platform. Even these definitions are open to debate, however: Dixon says that some see the iPhone as only partly closed to developers — a truly closed platform wouldn’t allow third-party apps at all, as most phones didn’t before the iPhone.

The point is that different services, companies and platforms can be open in some ways and closed in others. As Dixon described in a recent interview about the Open Like project, a company like Google is happy to be open when it comes to mobile operating systems or browsers — things that aren’t core to its business — but when it comes to the details of its search and advertising algorithms, not so much. This just makes economic sense, he says, and is known in economic terms as “commoditizing the complement.” In other words, companies benefit by being open with things that will help drive demand for their core product or service.

Being closed, Dixon argues, may make sense for a company such as Facebook or Twitter or Google, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the industry as a whole, or for society.

Chris Saad of also took a crack at defining what “open” means, both in a post on his own blog and at the Data Portability site. What he calls “Torvalds open” works for software such as operating systems (Linus Torvalds is the founder of Linux) but doesn’t work as well for web-based products and services, because in those cases “the software itself has less value than the network effects and up-time provided by a branded, hosted experience.” Running Twitter as open source wouldn’t matter, he argues, because “Twitter’s lock-in is not their software, but rather their name space (@chrissaad) and their developer ecosystem.”

As for Facebook and its new features, Saad says that “when Mark Zuckerberg talks about open, he is not talking about technology. He is talking about human interactions.” He add that:

[Facebook has] gone to great lengths to redefine the word Open to mean the way people interact with each other. In doing so, they have managed to, in large part, co-opt the word and claim their platform makes people ‘more open’.

Saad says that his view of what open should mean is “interoperable and distributed.” Twitter wouldn’t meet this definition, he says, because while it has an open API, it controls the “namespace” (i.e., user names such as @chrissaad), limiting what you can do with the API and when, as well as charging for access.

Open advocate David Recordon, who is now working at Facebook, has also written about his view (and presumably Facebook’s view) of what is open about the new services and features the site has launched, including the fact that the open graph protocol is licensed under Open Web Foundation standards. His blog post came in response to comments from Chris Messina — another prominent open advocate who now works at Google — about how the company’s “open” protocol and API weren’t really open. The bottom line, Messina said, is:

[I]t’s dishonest to think that the Facebook Open Graph Protocol benefits anyone more than Facebook — as it exists in its current incarnation, with Facebook accounts as the only valid participants.

And so the open vs. closed debate continues. Who is the most open? Who is open where it really matters, as opposed to just being open where it’s convenient or low-risk? Who can convince users, developers and — most importantly — advertisers and other businesses to join their open or closed platform? More than anything, this appears to be shaping up as a battle between Google (which published an “open manifesto” late last year) and Facebook over who can out-open the other. All we can hope is that users will ultimately benefit.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

There’s No Stopping Facebook

Post image courtesy of Flickr user Tony Duarte

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