Darel Rex Finley in 888

The Meaning of Kicking Ass

2010.01.14   prev     next

TIME to talk about Google’s Jonathan Rosenberg’s “The Meaning of Open”:

At Google we believe that open systems win.

Except all of Google’s closed, private technologies, of course. They’ve been winning for a long time now without being open, and they’re going to keep on doing just that. Funny how “open” wasn’t a priority when Google was building its search business, Gmail, Google Maps, etc. But now that Google is trying to compete against the iPhone, and needs some way to differentiate itself, “open” is not only a good thing, but practically a guaranteed “win.” (And something Apple ought to be doing, of course!)

They lead to more innovation, value, and freedom of choice for consumers...

Unless the consumer’s system of preference happens not to be “open.” Open systems don’t help the consumer to make that choice.

[Closed systems] can also deliver well-designed products in the short run — the iPod and iPhone being the obvious examples — but eventually innovation in a closed system tends towards being incremental at best (is a four blade razor really that much better than a three blade one?) because the whole point is to preserve the status quo. Complacency is the hallmark of any closed system. If you don’t have to work that hard to keep your customers, you won’t.

Yeah, once Apple’s designers had the market-dominating iPod, they didn’t have to work hard to create the iPhone — it just fell out of their butt. And now that the iPhone is the pre-emininent smartphone, I’m sure the folks at Apple aren’t working hard to create some new product (like maybe some tablet thing?).

And say — I’m just wondering: If you don’t have to work hard to keep your customers because they’re locked in, then how can they switch to the competition’s “open” system? How will the “open” system benefit them if they’re locked into the closed system and can’t switch? And if they do switch to the “open” system because it’s better, then they weren’t “locked in” — were they??

Open systems are just the opposite. They are competitive and far more dynamic.

What does dynamic mean — unpredictable? And there’s nothing very competitive about the iPhone, I suppose.

In an open system, a competitive advantage doesn’t derive from locking in customers, but rather from understanding the fast-moving system better than anyone else and using that knowledge to generate better, more innovative products.

Lemme get this straight: If you give away your system to your competitors for free, but you just happen to know how to make products with it better than they do, then you’ll still prevail in the market. Until you give away that stuff for free too... Then you’ll have to make something else again. And give it away too? Um, when does this strategy pay off, exactly? Oh yeah, when you stop giving away your stuff. When you become “closed.” When you become a bad guy.

Open systems have the potential to spawn industries.

Apple didn’t spawn a huge mobile software market with their “closed” iPhone App Store, did they? It sure looks like they did. But they really didn’t. Only “open” systems really count.

They harness the intellect of the general population and spur businesses to compete, innovate, and win based on the merits of their products ...

Exactly! The App Store is doing just that! Oops — I forgot. Doesn’t count. It’s “closed.” Bad. Wrong.

[I]n the mid-1990s private firms were discovering and patenting large amounts of DNA sequence data and then assuming control over who could access that information and at what price. Having so much of the genome under private ownership raised costs and made drug discovery far less efficient. ...

Which humans spent enormous amounts of time, effort, and personal risk writing all the code in the DNA? Oh yeah, none of them. If you spend a lot of time creating something, you kind-of need to get some return on that. People don’t work for free.

Apple’s already had a huge taste of giving the fruits of their labors up to the world for free, when Microsoft ripped off the Mac and called it “Windows.” What do you want Apple to do — voluntarily recreate the same scenario again? Maybe Apple’s creativity has been free for long enough. We all saw what Microsoft was able to do with it. (Retcchh.) It’s about time Apple started reaping the rewards of their efforts for a change, and being able to invest those earnings back into more projects. The iPod’s success fuels development of the iPhone, the iPhone fuels development of the unannounced tablet thing, etc. Hey, that seems to be working pretty well.

Another way to look at the difference between open and closed systems is that open systems allow innovation at all levels — from the operating system to the application layer — not just at the top.

I think I get it. You don’t want to write end-user apps, and you’d have to apply for a job at Apple to work on the iPhone OS, and they might not hire you. You already landed a job at Google, but they didn’t come up with the iPhone. They’re trying desperately to get in the game with Android, but it’s not looking like an iPhone killer, despite all the Android-will-win bravado in the tech press. And so all you can do is sit by the sidelines and whine about how Apple should be more “open” so you could fuck around with their OS in your spare time.

Hey, here’s an idea. Write some excellent apps for the iPhone on your own time! Then when the moo-la-lah comes rolling in, you can quit your job at Google — “It’s been fun, guys!” — and devote yourself full-time to writing more excellent iPhone apps. What’s wrong with that?

I don’t know if you’re an example of this or not, but I think one of the problems with computer guys (probably especially at a company like Google), is that they think writing end-user apps is beneath them. They want to write the OS — the really “important” stuff — and let a bunch of other developers somewhere write the end-user apps.

But guess what? Computer users don’t need a gob of new OSes and a modest collection of ho-hum apps for those OSes. They need just one, or a very few, good OSes, and a ton of great apps. That’s what Apple has figured out how to do with the iPhone. That’s why the iPhone is kicking ass.

Google’s future depends on the Internet staying an open system ...

News flash: The internet is an open system, and the iPhone isn’t changing that.

Google has mostly specialized in websites and web-apps, so of course Google would stand to benefit if everything moved to the web. We all read Google’s Chrome cartoon and got a good picture of how everything’s gonna be open, shared, and cross-innovated. But while we were reading it, did we stop for a second to contemplate the fact that Chrome isn’t a web-app? It’s a stand-alone executable binary. Why didn’t Google write Chrome as a web-app, designed to run in other browsers, like Firefox and Internet Explorer? Because that would have sucked royally, that’s why. Well, guess what — there are a lot of other apps that would also suck if they had been written as web-apps.

Web-apps are great. I really like Gmail. But some things will always be much better in a locally executed, processor-native app, while other things will be better in a visit-me-for-free webpage.

The definition of open starts with the technologies upon which the Internet was founded: open standards and open source software. ... Networks have always depended on standards to flourish. When railroad tracks were first being laid across the U.S. in the early 19th century, there were seven different standards for track width. The network didn’t flourish and expand west until the different railway companies agreed upon a standard width of 4' 8.5".

Hey, that’s a pretty good analogy! The network is the rails. The computers (phones, etc.) are the trains. And the end-user apps that run on the computers are — hmmm. Oh, they’re nothing. They don’t exist. No, it’s not a good analogy. It sucks.

Buddy, listen. The internet standardized on a common communication protocol a long time ago. You’re trying to fight a battle that’s already won. It’s got nothing whatsoever to do with the claim that a mobile OS should be “open.”

As Eric said in his 2009 strategy memo, “we don’t trap users, we make it easy for them to move to our competitors.” This policy is sort of like the emergency exits on an airplane — an analogy that our pilot CEO would appreciate. You hope to never use them, but you’re glad they’re there and would be furious if they weren’t.

Users want web-apps and users want stand-alone executable apps. If your business is focused on providing ad-supported web-apps and other internet data services (i.e. Google), then you can smirk about how “open” you are, and how “free” your users are to jump ship at any time (but not with their Gmail messages, I’m guessing). And you can gloat about how a company that focuses on fostering creation of processor-native executable apps (i.e. Apple), is “closed,” and its users are “locked-in.”

But you can’t smirk and gloat about how your system is providing users with the overwhelming majority of slick mobile apps.

Because it isn’t. Apple’s is.


See also: Pointless Wrappers


Update 2010.01.22 — Latest news is that of all mobile apps, 99.4% of them are for the iPhone.


Update 2010.03.03 — I stand corrected about the “not with their Gmail messages” thing. But I stand by everything else in this article.


Update 2010.07.15 — Apparently the Droid X, one of the more sought-after “open” (i.e. Android) phones, is programmed to intentionally brick itself (i.e. become permanently unusable) when it detects unapproved user modification.


Update 2010.07.17 — According to its manufacturer, the Droid X doesn’t permanently brick your phone when it detects unapproved mods — it just temporarily bricks the phone, until you undo your mods.


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Hear, hear

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