Gruber: Open vs. closed has very little to do with commercial success

“Tim Wu, writing for The New Yorker ‘News Desk,’ has done us all a grand favor by penning a sort of grand unified theory on how the ‘open beats closed’ axiom can be true in the face of Apple’s decade-long success: ‘Does a Company Like Apple Need a Genius Like Steve Jobs?’ Wu’s conclusion: yes, Apple is falling back to earth sans Jobs, and the normalcy of open beating closed will return any moment now,” John Gruber writes for Daring Fireball. “Let’s consider his argument.”

The old tech adage is that “open beats closed.” In other words, open technological systems, or those that allow interoperability, always beat their closed competitors. This is an article of faith for certain engineers. It’s also the lesson from Windows’ defeat of the Apple Macintosh in the nineteen-nineties, Google’s triumph in the early aughts, and, more broadly, the success of the Internet over its closed rivals (remember AOL?). But is it still true? – Tim Wu, The New Yorker

Gruber writes, “Allow me to start by putting forth an alternative rule of thumb for commercial success in any market: better and earlier tend to beat worse and later. That is to say, successful products and services tend to be those that are superior qualitatively and which hit the market sooner. (Consider Microsoft’s travails in the smartphone market: the old Windows Mobile (nee Windows CE) hit the market years before the iPhone and Android, but it sucked. Windows Phone is by all accounts a technically solid, well-designed system, but by the time it arrived the iPhone and Android were entrenched market leaders — it was too late.) You don’t have to be best or first, but the winners are likely to be those which fare well in both regards.”

“There is nothing profound or insightful (or original) about this theory; it is simply common sense,” Gruber writes. “My point though, is that open-vs.-closed has very little to do with commercial success, in and of itself. Openness carries no magic.”

Much more in the full article – very highly recommendedhere.

MacDailyNews Take: It’s the ecosystem, stupid.

As Apple CEO Steve Jobs said on October 18, 2010:

“Google loves to characterize Android as ‘open’ and iOS and iPhone as ‘closed.’ We find this a bit disingenuous and clouding the real difference between our two approaches. The first thing most of us think about when we heard the word ‘open’ is Windows, which is available on a variety of devices. Unlike Windows, however, where most PCs have the same user interface and run the same apps, Android is very fragmented. Many Android OEMs including the two largest, HTC and Motorola, install proprietary user interfaces to differentiate themselves from the commodity Android experience. The user is left to figure it all out.”

“Compare this with iPhone, where every handset works the same. Twitter client, TwitterDeck, recently launched their app for Android. They reported that they had to contend with more than a hundred different versions of Android software on 244 different handsets. The multiple hardware and software iterations presents developers with a daunting challenge. Many Android apps work only on selected Android handsets running selected Android versions. And this is for handsets that have been shipped less than 12 months ago. Compare this with iPhone, where there are two versions of the software, the current and the most recent predecessor to test against.”

“In addition to Google’s own app marketplace, Amazon, Verizon, and Vodafone have all announced that they are creating their own app stores for Android. So, there will be at least four app stores on Android, which customers must search among to find the app they want and developers will need to work with to distribute their apps and get paid.”

“This is going to be a mess for both users and developers.”

“Contrast this with Apple’s integrated App Store which offers users the easiest to use, largest App Store in the world, preloaded on every iPhone. Apple’s App Store has over three times as many apps as Google’s marketplace and offers developers one-stop shopping to get their apps to market easily and to get paid swiftly.”

“You know, even if Google were right and the real issue is ‘closed’ versus ‘open,’ it is worthwhile to remember that ‘open’ systems don’t always win. Take Microsoft’s ‘PlaysForSure’ music strategy which used the PC model, which Android uses as well, of separating the software components from the hardware components. Even Microsoft finally abandoned this ‘open’ strategy in favor of copying Apple’s integrated approach with their Zune player; unfortunately leaving with OEMs empty-handed in the process. Goolge flirted with this integrated approach with their Nexus One phone.”

“In reality, we think the ‘open’ vs. ‘closed’ argument is just a smokescreen to try and hide the real issue which is: What’s best for the customer? Fragmented versus integrated. We think Android is very, very fragmented and becoming more fragmented by the day. And, as you know, Apple strives for the integrated model so the user isn’t forced to be the systems integrator. We see tremendous value in having Apple, rather than our users, be the systems integrator.”

“We think this is a huge strength of our approach compared to Google’s. When selling to users who want their devices to just work, we believe integrated will trump fragmented every time. And we also think our developers can be more innovative if they can target a singular platform, rather than a hundred variants. They can put their time into innovative new features, rather than testing on hundreds of different handsets. So we are very committed to the integrated approach, no matter how many times Google tries to characterize it as ‘closed,’ and we are confident that it’ll triumph over Google’s fragmented approach, no matter how many times Google tries to characterize it as ‘open.’”

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20 Comments

            1. The Wang, a computer about the size of a desk in the early 70s. It was great for making multiple copies of your résumé just before graduation.

              I don’t remember doing any real science on it.

              It was named after the inventor, not the trouser snake.

  1. Better, sooner, but also cheaper (or at least competitively priced) and available.
    Mac was better and sooner than Windows, but cost a lot more and hard find (i.e. zero ecosystem.)

    1. The Mac didn’t make it into the enterprise market because IBM-compatibles (DOS) were already widespread and it takes corporations a long time to switch platforms especially if they are reliant on in-house applications. The Mac was well established by the time Windows came out and had a thriving ecosystem. Windows became the dominant player because it could run on hardware already in place.

      Apple could’ve remained a very significant player if they had released the Apple IIGS in 1982/1983 rather than the Apple III or the Lisa. This would’ve allowed them to build on top of their already established Apple II platform and make the move to a GUI based OS. Instead they tried to create a new whole new platform that was incompatible with anything else.

      The Mac only succeeded because it was able to create new markets and retained a huge advantage in those markets until the mid to late 90’s after they let the platform stagnate and allowed other platforms to catch up. Hell, Windows 95 even had “More Mac like” plastered on the damned box. LOL

  2. Gruber’s wrong. Mac OS was earlier and better than Windows, and look what happened.

    It’s who has a good OS on good hardware, but most importantly, who makes their platform the easiest for developers to create software for it and helps them make money.

    This expands the usefulness of the OS, creates more variety, and ultimately locks people into the platform because of what they have invested in it.

    1. Look what happened? What happened was that Macs were priced double what a Wintel machine cost, and the Wintel machine, while certainly not the best, was “good enough”.

    2. What are you doing making spot on commentary in a den of fools.

      Gruber fails on the first test. Who wins in the mass market? The product with the most mass appeal. How do you get there? Why should I tell you?

    3. There’s a lot more to it than just that. You have to understand market dynamics in that period of time. Corporations were buying computers – very few consumers were. It had nothing to do with “mass appeal” or better operating system. It had to do with what was already established. At that time IBM was king. (Remember the 1984 commercial from Apple? That wasn’t about Microsoft, it was targeted at IBM.) IBM-compatibles running DOS were already established in IT. This made it a de facto standard. The move to Windows was a no brainer for them; it was backwards compatible with software AND hardware.

      At the time, Mac OS was infinitely better, but it had no place to go until new markets were created around it.

  3. In the early days of any new industry, open may trump closed but there comes a time when closed becomes the norm. How many auto manufacturers were there in the early days of automobiles were there?

    Eventually everything becomes a closed system. By definition computers are very flexible devices but in the end, standards in features and benefits will trump that flexibility.

  4. Open vs. closed, 2013:
    1- Mac is consistently the #1 or #2 computer maker in the USA and is gaining share overseas.
    2- Google has Android, app store, electronic music sales, Moto handset maker.
    3- Microsoft has Win8, manufactures Surface, sells apps, controls Nokia (captive phone maker).
    4- Samsung developing Tizun OS, rumored to be working on store(s) for selling apps, content.

    Apple has demonstrated that, other things being the same, integration/closed is superior.  The benefits of integration were trumped in the 1990s by lower manufacturing costs among makers of Windows-based computers.

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