Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Open vs 'just works - convergence part 2

So way back when IBM stalked the earth, computers were closed systems. The whole evolution of Microsoft from IBM OS provider to the monopoly that crushed Netscape was based on allowing market forces to drive down hardware prices whilst keeping control of the software. Outside of the design/advertising/music niches that supported Apple through the 90s there was no hardware plus software alternative. It wasn't until storage, processing and distribution became cheap enough to threaten content industries that closed hardware started to reappear: Sony, with music and movie businesses as well as the hardware to play them, drove DRM across all devices (not just in MP3 and DVDs: for years their cameras used proprietary memory sticks that had to be read on Sony readers). Usability and user choice became secondary to the requirements of content owners and device manufacturers.

While peer to peer or open systems have changed the way we think about communications (Skype), advertising (Google), IT (Linux), music (BitTorrent) etc over the last ten years, this has gone hand in hand with the rise and rise of Apple. iTunes may have removed DRM as soon as it was strong enough, but only because DRM is not Apple's control, it is someone else's. Having reinvented music distribution and mobile phones, Apple is now casting its eyes over the publishing industry. To be fair, the publishing industry is glad of the attention, as this offers book publishers an alternative to Amazon/Kindle, newspaper publishers an alternative to losing readers, and both of them an alternative to Google.

The marriage of revolutionary design, innate usability and utter hardware/software compatibility means that the 95% (NB made up stat) of people who don't care about how something works or how to improve it or how to squeeze every drop of performance out of it, will never need to worry about an Apple product doing what it is meant to. It just works. Apple created new categories: there are MP3 players, and there are iPods. There are mobiles, and there are iPhones. And by the time the iPad actually arrives in shops i'd guess there will also be tablet pcs. But they won't just work.

If you think about the future of innovation and technology, then this is a scary thought. One closed platform controlling access to music, books, newspapers and (somewhere along the line) TV. Ok you can develop for the that platform, but only along carefully prescribed lines and at the risk of not being accepted to run on it. (BTW i'm suggesting here that I think that the iPad will be a big success, but not as big a success as it will be in two years' time)

Even more worrying is that that platform is controlled by one person. However successful Apple have been recently, their share price dropped dramatically when the rumours of Steve Jobs' illness circulated in autumn 2008
Although that could have been the recession as well. Nevertheless, it is an awful lot of control in the hands of one man with a recent history of health problems.

I think it is hard to square this one. Philosophically I believe in the power of open systems to drive innovation and human value. But I'm going to keep buying the closed ones because they work better. And I think that the number of people who think like that is only going to increase. I guess that this means that I'd better listen to those YouTube sales reps at work, as Google is only going to stay open and innovative for as long as the Google Revenue Equation holds true, and that equation is driven by the returns from paid search and video.


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