On Ecosystems

There has been a lot of discussion lately over the relative merit of open vs. closed (or integrated) approaches to user experience in consumer electronics, mobile devices, and computing in general. But lost in the debate is the question of what perspective people are taking: there are really two conversations happening here but they are treated as one. And the position people take is largely dictated by whether they are arguing on behalf of the end users or on behalf of the developers.

User centric

One of the big news items in the technology world was the 5 minute tirade Steve Jobs recently unleashed against Google and its Android mobile operating system. The relevant part that is key to the whole discussion, in my view is the following;

We think the open vs. closed is just a smokescreen to try and hide the real issue, which is: What’s best for the customer? Fragmented vs. integrated. We think Android is very very fragmented and becoming more fragmented by the day.

To Jobs, the customer is key. So, in his view, and in the view of most people who support the approach Apple is taking, complete integration is the key to success.

This is a view that excuses any decision by the product makers as long as it keeps the customer happy. A few months ago, I alluded to Apple providing a Disney-fied version of the computing world:

… Steve Jobs, largest Disney share holder. The net result is that the Apple leader has now learned to turn his company into the new Disney, bringing safe products to the masses in a highly sterilized environment that may not appeal to all.

And a Disneyworld version of computing is OK for most people. Most people love the magic kingdom but, for a portion of the population, Disney world is a place you visit, not one you live in.

To Apple and its supporters, the end user of a product is the central point and the product creator (in this case, Apple and Steve Jobs) has all rights over the direction of the product as long as it benefits the customer. This leads to a million little decision that add or remove components and features of a product to create an all-encompassing offering.

Some of the decisions lead to truly amazing leaps forward while others get more controversial. And there is a high level of intelligence to most of the decisions that go into making Apple products but while Apple devices are intelligently designed, nature isn’t.

And that’s where differences start being highlighted.

Developer centric

The developer world takes a view that is almost biological when it comes to how software should evolve. From the very mention of ecosystems, to the way software ought to evolve, people who believe in the long term health of the industry as a whole argue that diversity always wins over integration.

In the developer-centric view, openness is an essential component because when everything can be seen, when transparency rules the land, then mistakes get corrected more quickly and the best code wins. The developers point to how evolution works in nature and to the works of Darwin on natural selection to highlight how the best code naturally gets selected from the wide diversity of offerings.

Open access to research seems to show that ideas that are not locked down end up being more successful. Open government data allows for more work to be done voluntarily and in a less expensive fashion that closed data. Open source points to systems becoming more secure and more stable. Open, in other words, seems to be the cure to all ailments.

In my view, open is great when a new system is introduced because it allows for anyone to look at any innovation, dissect it, and understand it. In other words, it levels the playing field by allowing any newcomer access to the same information as anyone else. There is a democratic element that is appealing when hearing about open.

An important proponent of the open view is Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web (and thus, probably one of the most important figure alive in the computer world today). When he first came up with the web browser, he made a key decision that would accelerate the growth of the web: he created a menu item that allowed anyone to view the “source” code, or the actual innards of a web page, to be viewed by any user who desired to do so. It allowed for a generation of web developers to learn the tricks of anyone that built a page before them offered and fostered an explosion of creativity that has led us to the current web.

So which way?

But the open web also allowed for some pretty dreadful looking pages. However, with billions of pages now available, the argument is that the bad ones sink to the bottom while the best ones raise to the top. This would seem to justify the value of open over closed, the value of diversity of a more edited approach.

There is, however, a way to resolve both views and it is through a quote that has often been attributed to Charles Darwin, the father of evolution:

It is not the strongest of the species, nor the smartest of the species, but the most adaptable to change that survive.

Whether the quote itself is from Darwin or not, it represents a position that could start bridging the gap between the integrated and open world.

The answer thus must be that as long an integrated approach keeps adapting to the changes in the marketplace, it is OK to keep it closed. And vice-versa, it is OK to keep an ecosystem open as long as it ensures the highest amount of flexibility in terms of adapting market changes as quickly as possible across all its constituents.

That later piece is difficult to achieve for open systems and I can see some of the value in what Steve Jobs is saying in terms of fragmentation: while the iOS experience is a closed system that provides a single, centrally managed experience that users can either support or reject, Android has become a very different world, where defining what Android is about is increasingly difficult: Is the Android experience what’s available on an HTC Android device? A Samsung one? Or it is what’s available in the latest version of the OS?

Open, at the end of the day, favors the development world but integrated (and, as a result, often more closed) favors the end user. Where you stand ultimately defines how you would view either.

About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched six companies, of which two went public and three were sold. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.