Open vs. Closed Systems: What the Future Holds

on November 28, 2012
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Open/Closed signs

Since the beginning of the personal computing era. there has been a struggle for dominance between open and closed systems. The early open CP/M computers gave way to the relatively closed Apple ][. The closed Mac was beaten by the open Microsoft/Intel PC. A few years ago, with the rise of mobile platforms, it looked like the closed model was achieving dominance. The closed BlackBerry and the rising iPhone were demolishing the open Windows Mobile. In traditional computers, the Mac was at long last gaining ground on Windows.

Today, things are a muddle and it is far from clear which model will dominate the next phase. Note that my usage of open and closed has nothing to do with open or closed source; an open system, in this classification means one where a software vendor offers code to a variety of hardware makers while closed system companies allow their software only on their own hardware.

I have long thought that the closed approach was best for mobile devices, especially phones. Small devices benefit greatly from having software that is highly optimized for the specific hardware it runs on. This produces systems with superior size/battery life/performance tradeoffs and, often, a better user experience. This was true for BlackBerry in its heyday and it is true for Apple’s iOS today. Windows Mobile, by contrast, suffered horribly from its attempts to accomodate a wide variety of devices–with or without touch screens, with or without physical keyboards and D-pads, and displays in a variety of sizes and aspect ratios.

(Of course, closed was no guarantee of success. Palm prospered for a while as a closed system, but faltered when it couldn’t compete with financially stronger rivals. Symbian, nominally open but, in its later years, effectively proprietary Nokia software, was also swamped by the iPhone tide.)

The success of Android, which is the clear global leader as a smartphone platform,  may be changing the equation. It’s not clear whether the considerable variation in Android hardware design has been a blessing or a curse, but recent iterations of the operating system, especially the current Jelly Bean, have made it easier for developers to optimize software for a variety of device types and sizes. It still falls short of Apple’s seamless integration and probably always will, but it has definitely improved.

Microsoft seems to be charting a third course. Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Phone 8 are all nominally open. But Microsoft is keeping a close rein on its Windows Phone OEMs, setting tight parameters for most key specifications. For example, at least for the time being, Windows Phone is supported only on Qualcomm applications processors. The approach leads to a more consistent user experience, though it also causes a certain sameness in the devices. (Windows 8 and RT are covered by the more traditional Windows hardware requirements.Microsoft is keeping a close rein on its Windows Phone OEMs, setting tight parameters for most key specifications.

It’s far too early to say how successful Windows Phone 8 will be. Microsoft is rich and patient and seems inclined to give the much praised but apparently so far little purchased platform time to find its footing. Meanwhile, Google may be moving toward greater control of the Android platform, at least the licensed part of it, both by its sponsorship of Nexus designs and its control of Motorola Mobility. Microsoft, of course, has also plunged into manufacturing with the release of the Surface tablet, though it has shown no indication that it will also do its own phone.

Regardless of the success of Windows Phone, I think the  Microsoft approach may be the right model. Because Android is open source in addition to being an open platform, there’s really nothing Google can do about a proliferation of phones, especially in emerging markets, that ignore its guidelines. But I expect it to enforce greater control over “official” Android products as it integrates Motorola and seeks to improve the Android user experience across the board.