Alistair Fairweather

Open minds, closed fists

2010-04-09 10:34

We’re in the middle of a global ideological battle that will affect the future of millions. No, I don’t mean Christian vs Muslim or China vs America. The battlefield here is technology and the opposing ideologies are deceptively simple: open vs closed.

In technology terms, “closed” means that a single company owns, develops and controls everything about the product or service. An “open” product or service is one that allows many different companies to innovate on top of it, with the owners only controlling the inner core of their product.

Twitter is perhaps the ultimate blueprint for an open service. There are literally thousands of independently owned services that run alongside Twitter, complementing and extending its functionality into everything from stock tips to video sharing. As such Twitter has become what us tech geeks call a “platform” - a global service on top of which whole new businesses can be built.

In many ways Twitter’s huge popularity has been driven by its vast ecosystem of “third party” developers. Because Twitter allowed them to use its data in radical and unexpected ways, they created truly innovative services that attracted more and more users to Twitter itself. So the openness of Twitter’s platform was integral to its growth.

Contrast this with Apple, who spent decades building a global tribe of devotees to its own platform - a closed loop of beautifully integrated software and hardware. Unlike Twitter the people came first and then the platform. For Apple control is more important than raw innovation. Their customers have come to expect a level of perfection that requires a firm hand on the reins.

This means that even where Apple is apparently open - such as their App Store which allows external developers to sell software for devices like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad - it is really still closed. If you want your software in the App Store you have to play by Apple’s rules, and pay to use their tools to make it.

Apple made this point even more clear yesterday when it launched the new version of its operating system for touch devices. It used the opportunity to close all the loopholes in the agreement that all external software developers must sign.

So in technology’s cold war Apple are turning out, somewhat unexpectedly, to be the USSR. That’s in the authoritarian, secretive and capricious sense - not the shoddy Soviet products sense. That makes Apple more like Microsoft, once their arch rivals, and less like Google, with whom they shared a director until just nine months ago.

Twitter, on the other hand, might be seen as the USA of this cold war - wild, woolly and obsessed with freedom. The big difference here is that the USA had a revenue stream - capitalism - whereas Twitter does not. It’s all very well to build a service for 70 million users, but everyone has to pay their bills eventually.

Then again everyone said Facebook - who coincidentally falls squarely between Twitter and Apple in terms of openness - would never make money. This year it is projecting over $1bn in revenue and growing by over 500 employees.

Openness is a double edged sword. It has allowed Twitter to grow and evolve much more quickly than previously thought possible, because it effectively expanded their tiny workforce by hundreds of thousands of unpaid volunteers. Then again, if you put yourself in the hands of your community, you are also at their mercy.

But while a closed ecosystem gives you control, it also tends to stifle innovation. As long as you are setting the agenda, you are limited by the bounds of your own creativity. In Apple’s case those bounds are exceptionally wide, but they are not unlimited.

In the end an ecosystem rests on its food chain: can it make enough people enough money to be self sustaining? Apple’s platform may be closed, but it has sold over three billion apps and made a lot of developers a lot of money. Twitter has yet to make anyone rich.

Which ideology will win the battle? It’s tempting to pick the underdog here - to root for the guys on the side of freedom. But the hard reality is that freedom is sometimes overrated. What Apple customers prize above all is that their devices “just work, and work well”. Maybe that is more valuable in the long run than any half-baked ideas of liberty.

- Alistair is Social media manager for Media24 magazines.

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