Open vs Closed & SOPA

Last Monday I went to see Hugh Dubberly make a presentation at the University of Washington. He presented Experience Design as the best way to succeed in today’s marketplace. Experience design is building systems and services in which customers can experience your brand in many different contexts, as the best way to succeed in today’s marketplace. There was some discussion after the event regarding whether a successful system exists that is “open”. This is what I wanted to focus on today, open versus closed systems.

Closed Systems

The current poster child for this is Apple. If you buy into Apple’s ecosystem you can have easy, low friction access to everything digital that is important to you. This systematic approach is the envy of many companies. Huge profits and repeat customers await companies that can create an effective, pervasive closed system.

Microsoft and Google are sometimes seen as more open platforms, but their profit centers are closed. The truth is that being “open” as technologists undestand it is antithetical to operating a goal driven (profit or otherwise) organization. Microsoft may allow developers to build anything they want for their products, but their office software, historical browser favoritism, recent phone hardware specs, and initial backlash against Kinect hacking all remind us that at heart they operate a closed system.

Google prides itself on being open, but their definition of open is full of caveats. Just because software is on the web does not make it open. They create a closed system of email, social networks, productivity software, and then bundle up what they learn about its users to sell to their real customers, advertisers. Google has resisted releasing the software and hardware specs that run their data centers, has delayed releasing their Android source code, and has guarded their secret searching sauce. Their recent bid for Motorola is a sign that they wish to control the hardware end of Android more fully. You can’t really believe that Google will not treat Motorola preferentially. They’d be stupid not to. Open is relative and Google holds the cards.

I am not trying to vilify these companies, just pointing out that even more open systems are subject to the objectives of their owners. It’s my assertion that a system owned by a single organization cannot be truly open. Nor should it be. Every company has the priviledge of maximizing its own success and I wouldn’t want to see a world where honest means of doing so are arbitrarily limited.

Open Systems

So what’s an example of a successful open system? The internet. The internet is the only true open system in the technology world. People make money on the internet just like Apple makes money by selling gadgets and songs, but no one entity controls the internet. If I use the internet who benefits from my participation, aside from myself? Any number of different people. There is nobody I could buy the internet from if I wanted. This open platform is accessible from and device with a data connection, including my locked-up-tight iPhone. In addition to the browser the majority of my most used apps access their content via the open platform of the web.

The internet is a truly open system, but that also makes it a very messy place. Billions of people, and countless companies and organizations all use it for their own purposes. This means there is plenty of useless and offensive material scattered around along with the great and useful stuff. Thank goodness for the open web.


While the web itself is open it is not immune to technological intervention. The great Firewall of China is the best example I can think of. The SOPA bill is being pushed through the US Congress right now. This bill will allow government censoring of the web in hopes of protecting the intellectual property of some very noisy, wealthy, and influential people. I cannot overstate what a disaster this could be for the open platform that we have all benefited from. There are plenty of things on the internet I would like to see disappear, but giving the government even limited power could begin to close off the only truly open platform we have. Sign a petition, contact your representatives, raise a stink, because I promise you that the lobbyists are doing the same.

Closed Experience Design Open SOPA