Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Open vs. Closed Systems

There's been a flurry of news today as Steve Jobs had one of his latest outbursts--this time focused on why he feels iPhone is better than anything out there. At its essence, the argument boils down to a disagreement about which approach is better: an open system or a closed system. Allow me to explain. An open system would be something like the classic PC--it's put out there on the market, and any other company can make parts for it, tweak it as they see fit, use it for new products, etc. That's how you have the current situation, where Dell, Gateway, HP and a slew of other computer companies exist, all selling essentially the same thing, just with different tweaks. On the other end of the spectrum is a closed system such as Macintosh. Apple owns Mac and is draconian about what it will and won't allow on the machine. They serve as the gatekeeper to their products. Other companies have tried to make clones of the Mac, and Apple has sued them out of existence.

There are arguments for and against both sides. With open systems, consumers often win. They can wade through all the different setups of the product and select the one they like the most. Prices drop. At the same time, they have to wade through all those different setups to select the one they want. Consumers need to be savvy if they want to get the right product.

With closed systems, consumers don't need to wade at all. They know the product they're getting, right out of the box. The company that sells that product has complete control of the presentation and interface of their product, which often results in a slicker, more user-friendly experience. At the same time, prices rise as the company has control over them. There might not be as much innovation, and choices will be restricted by what the company wants, not what consumers want.

In the days of PC vs Mac, PC seemed to win. Mac tried to control its fate, and it was pushed out of the spotlight by PC, with PC computers reigning supreme . . . until today, where Mac is making more than a bit of a comeback. Clearly, these things come and go.

This same scenario is playing out today in the smartphone industry. You have iPhone (a closed system by Apple) vs. Android (an open system by Google). The same pros and cons apply to both. Steve Jobs wants his iPhone interface exactly how he wants it--no tweaks allowed. Google's all for openness. The great thing for regular folk like you and me is that we don't need to take sides. It's good to see huge companies fighting over our attention, because that means that in the end, we win. We want there to be heated rivalries--it results in better products. So if you'd rather have a slick, easy-to-use experience, go with iPhone. If you want control over your phone and what you can and can't do with it, go with Android.

At least, that's my take on the matter. Any questions?

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