One of the most recurrent debates in technology is about the extent of control: Should systems be open and collaborative, or should they be tightly controlled by a single entity that has a ‘clear vision’? In essence, it is what we today term as the debate between ‘open source’ and the ‘walled garden’ approaches.
The decade gone by saw a cold war on these lines between Microsoft and Linux. While Linux could never challenge the ubiquity of Windows in the desktop space, it did manage to sweep clean the server market. For most of that time, Microsoft laughed all the way to the bank but the open source movement rolled on, producing marvels like virtualization and big data. In the end, before there could be a verdict, the rules of the game changed.
The Rise of the Smartphone
Desktop software and hardware manufactures, dominant players in the computing world for more than two decades, suddenly found themselves unprepared for the unexpected revolution of mobile devices. Almost overnight, the iPhone became the device of the future and a few years later, the iPad launched to much fanfare eventually outselling laptops and desktops in the large US market. Simultaneously, the release of Android, made possible the enormous variety of hardware types and specifications in mobile phones and tablets that could never previously be imagined. Computing had gone mobile with new players dominating the field; Apple and Google, while traditional giants such as Nokia, Microsoft, Blackberry, DELL and HP were left scrambling.
Open or Closed?
Developers always detest multiple platforms. Releasing new software is trouble enough without having to customize it for multiple platforms. But that is exactly what the smartphone revolution has left us with. For a business or an independent app developer, there are many operating systems to consider – Symbian, BlackBerry OS, iOS, Windows Phone and Android. Each one of them now offers an application store and a pool of millions of potential users; but neither offers any level of inter-compatibility or inter-connection.
So essentially our predicament from the desktop era still remains: Should the platform of our choice be open or closed? While open platforms do tend to promote greater freedom of choice, they are harder to control and monetize (let’s not forget Android still doesn’t have a real revenue model). A closed system is easy to monitor and profit from, but the tightrope walk is not for everyone – for every Apple, there is a RIM.
Today, it really doesn’t look like systems can be truly open; if recent patterns are anything to go by. Google had to step in to control hardware (with the acquisition of Motorola Mobility) in order to guide the destiny of Android. Then there are the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Noble, who have their separate hardware devices and forked ‘walled’ versions of Android!
So the most logical thing to do in such a dynamic environment, as consumers, developers and end users of these platforms, is to celebrate the availability of choice. Never before in history have we been given such a wide pool of innovative systems to choose from and while cross compatibility is a nightmare, there is more to celebrate here than worry about (patent wars aside).
In the end, it all comes down to individual preferences, application requirements and business aims but we should recognize that we are getting the best of both the worlds, open and closed; which one we choose is entirely up to us.