Geeks have been so used to hearing about how open systems beat out close systems that they seem surprisingly blind to what I see is an obvious evolution in the web into which closed systems are winning. The 90’s were all about tearing down of walls and openness and standards ruling the roost. The Internet beat AOL, Bittorrent beat RIAA, reddit and digg are beating the New York Times. It’s easy to conclude from this that, on a long enough timeline, open systems always prevail.

But what I see is a shift in the opposite direction in which we increasingly depend more on facebook, the iPhone and other closed, managed services. I’m not quite prepared to stake my thinking on a single answer at this point but it seems to be based a lot on a closed service’s greater ability to create a compelling user experience and a shift in technological maturity which has made this a greater selling point.

I had the chance to use a Windows Mobile phone for 2 weeks and the user experience was absolutely shockingly abysmal compared to my iPhone. When I talked to Windows Mobile defenders about this, they inevitably raise the ability to use it as a wireless AP and as a turn by turn navigation device and have background programs and as a freaking multimedia message sender but I think such concerns are becoming increasingly more irrelevant to a larger proportion of the population. What’s compelling about the iPhone is that the things it can do, it does beautifully and that it has the fortitude to do what it took to make that experience compelling. Unfortunately, compelling user experiences are sometimes at odds with freedom.

Freedom also means the freedom to be mediocre and there’s frankly a lot of windows mobile apps which are shockingly poorly made. Freedom also means freedom to build complex things which require a complex abstraction to support them. Apple’s decision to have one program running at a time is restrictive but it also means it never needs to expose manual memory management to the user.

As a developer, I’m appaled at the arrogance and tone deafness that Apple treats the developer community but I also recognise that these are some of the eggs Apple has to break to make a compelling user experience omlette. Other phone manufacturers still seem to be missing the point and are now bending over backwards to emphasize how open and free they are without realising that’s precisely why people abandoned such platforms as unusable.

Responses

  1. Chris Messina says:

    April 23rd, 2009 at 4:30 am (#)

    This is certainly something that I’m personally sensitive to, and think that it’ll take something of a generational shift to get towards better-design open platforms. One of the things that “open” tends towards is the “middle”, since, in order to get more people to contribute, you’ve got to make political compromises in order to gain a wider following.

    Oftentimes this means adding more and more features rather than cutting (or, in writing terms, “editing”). I think a balance between app- and plugin-based platforms is necessary, so you need to find that sweet spot between meeting the baseline needs of a wide audience (motivating developers to want to build on your platform) and providing enough surface areas for devs to hook into that they can build satisfying extensions (see Firefox, Ubiquity and/or Adium).

    That said, design succeeds where there is a vision that is checked against a broad reality. I think Apple is succeeding here, and happens to provide a built-in income model as well (whereas the Mozilla community does not).

    Worth considering, for sure.

  2. Chris Messina says:

    April 22nd, 2009 at 8:30 pm (#)

    This is certainly something that I’m personally sensitive to, and think that it’ll take something of a generational shift to get towards better-design open platforms. One of the things that “open” tends towards is the “middle”, since, in order to get more people to contribute, you’ve got to make political compromises in order to gain a wider following.

    Oftentimes this means adding more and more features rather than cutting (or, in writing terms, “editing”). I think a balance between app- and plugin-based platforms is necessary, so you need to find that sweet spot between meeting the baseline needs of a wide audience (motivating developers to want to build on your platform) and providing enough surface areas for devs to hook into that they can build satisfying extensions (see Firefox, Ubiquity and/or Adium).

    That said, design succeeds where there is a vision that is checked against a broad reality. I think Apple is succeeding here, and happens to provide a built-in income model as well (whereas the Mozilla community does not).

    Worth considering, for sure.

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