cdixon blog

The tradeoff between open and closed

When having the “open vs closed” debate regarding a technology platform, a number of distinctions need to be made. First, what exactly is meant by “open.” Here’s a great chart from a paper by Harvard professor Tom Eisenmann (et al).:

(Eisenmann acknlowledges the iPhone isn’t fully open to the end user – in the US you need to use AT&T, etc.  I would argue the iPhone is semi-open to the app developer and mobile app development was effectively closed prior to the iPhone. But the main point here is that platforms can be open & closed in many different ways, at different levels, etc.)

The next important distinction is whose interest you are considering when asking what and when to open or close things.  I think there are at least 3 interesting perspectives:

The company: Lots of people have written about this topic (Clay Christensen, Joel Spolsky, more Eisenmann here).   In a nutshell, there are times when a company, acting solely in its self-interest, should close things and other times they should open things.  As a rule of thumb, a company should close their core assets and open/commoditize complementary assets. Google’s search engine is their core asset and therefore Google should want to keep it closed, whereas the operating system is a complement that they should commoditize (my full analysis of what Google should want to own vs commoditize is here). Facebook’s social graph is their core asset so it’s optimal to close it and not interoperate with other graphs, whereas marking up web pages to be more social-network friendly (open graph protocol) is complementary hence optimal for FB to open.  (With respect to social graphs interoperating (e.g. Open Social), it’s generally in the interest of smaller graphs to interoperate and larger ones not to – the same is true of IM networks).  Note that I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with Google and Facebook or any other company keeping closed or trying to open things according to their own best interests.

The industry: When I say “what is good for the industry” I mean what ultimately creates the most aggregate industry-wide shareholder value.  I assume (hope?) this also yields the maximum innovation.  As an active tech entrepreneur and investor I think my personal interests and the tech industry’s interests are mostly aligned (hence you could argue I’m talking my book).  Unfortunately it’s much easier to study open vs. closed strategies at the level of the firm than at the level of an industry, because there are far more “split test” cases to study.  What would the world be like if email (SMTP) were controlled by a single company?  I would tend to think a far less innovative and wealthy one. There are a number of multibillion dollar industries built on email: email clients, webmail systems, email marketing, anti-spam, etc.  The downside of openness is that it’s very hard to upgrade SMTP since you need to get so many parties to agree and coordinate.  So, for example, it has taken forever to add basic anti-spam authentication features to SMTP.  Twitter on the other hand can unilaterally add useful new things like their recent annotations feature.

Here’s what Professor Eisenmann said when I asked him to summarize the state of economic thinking on the topic:

With respect to your question about the impact of open vs closed on the economy, the hard-core economists cited in my book chapter have a lot to say, but it all boils down to “it depends.” Closed platform provides more incentive for innovation because platform owner can collect and redistribute more rent and can ensure that there’s a manageable level of competition in any given application category. Open platform harnesses strong network effects, attracting more application developers, and  thus stimulates lots of competition. There’s some interesting recent work that suggests that markets may evolve in directions that favor the presence of one strong closed player plus one strong open player (consider: Windows + Linux; iPhone + Android). In this scenario, society/economy gets best of both approaches.

Society:  I tend to think what is good for the tech industry is generally good for society.  But others certainly have different views.  Advocates of openness are often accused of being socialist hippies.  Maybe some are.  I am not.  I care about the tech industry.  I think it’s reasonable to question whether moves by large industry players are good or bad for the industry.  Unfortunately most of the debate I’ve seen so far seems driven by ideology and name calling.