There is likely to be a great deal of comment, disagreeing and agreeing, with Steven Johnson’s opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times. This piece argues that the Apple App Store and its integration with the iPad/iPhone experience, calls into question the old article of faith that closed, proprietary systems were doomed and the path forward for capitalist innovation was open systems.
Most of that gospel was formed in the early 90s when closed online platforms such as CompuServe, AOL, and Prodigy were overwhelmed and eventually annihilated by the open forces of HTML and TCP/IP. Lo and behold, that same openness, which drove a 15 year revolution in content creation and management that has utterly gutted the traditional mass media, has also highlighted consumer discomfort with buggy PC platforms, confusing software architectures, and a rapid return of the cycle of discordant, proprietary platforms ranging from smartphones (iPhone, BlackBerry, Android) to new PC/netbooks running proprietary (or at least non Windows/Intel) environments from re-skinned Linux distributions (JoliCloud, Joo-Joo) to browser-based stripped operating systems like Google Chromium. Factor in an incompatible slew of e-readers ranging from Kindle to Sony, Barnes & Noble to iPad and the world is setting itself up for a period of non-conformity and consumer confusion not seen since the pre-PC era when there were at least half a dozen pre-PC operating systems to choose from.
Johnson believes the consumer — who seeks simplicity, not noble principles of “openness” — is embracing the Apple-walled garden, where Flash video doesn’t run, and developers must pass through the Apple approval process, in order to get an elegant design and a controlled integration with assurances of no-viruses or malware and a single unified payment system.
Ok. I buy it. Same held true for AOL when ti came to the pre-Internet online experience. Single sign-on, unified, consistent experience, ubiquity in terms of access and usage and then what? But it was unsustainable, as all technical platform are inevitably replaced by the next better thing, all pushed aside by something less restrictive, more open, and more flexible. So I don’t buy Johnson’s statement that the Gospel of Open is being shaken or questioned by a lot of acolytes singing the praises of the iPad. I think it’s a dangerous closed system that is appealing to scared publishers and the most affluent but technically challenged segment of the population. It will not make a difference in the lives of the next billion users, most of whom are rushing, in torrents to open handset platforms like Android.
I give Apple a couple more years of relevance, until the next big thing makes it a memory like AOL and CompuServe. Closed always fades.
“But whatever Apple chooses to do with its platform in the coming years, it has made one thing clear: sometimes, if you get the conditions right, a walled garden can turn into a rain forest.”