“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

Why people who favor open systems are at a disadvantage?

It’s not even an insurmountable disadvantage. Just a disadvantage.

I go back and forth with my appreciation for and my disfavor of open systems. I believe that everyone has taken sides in the world. You either believe in government or you don’t. That is to say, you believe that agencies can act on your behalf or you don’t. For example (w/o any data to prove it), I believe that most open source software folks when push came to shove (meaning, if you were to really dig deep using the Socratic or similar method) are libertarians. They hate any sort of control over anything, out of fear that that control will be abused. A sound piece of logic to say the least. Now on the flip side, I am a betting man who will consider that designers tend to be socialists. They are bound by strong humanistic ethics AND believe that government can do good to help societies achieve those ethical standards.

So what does this have to do with anything?

Well, open systems are played out in software more than any place right now. 10 years ago OSS folks would ride charging at full tilt against the Microsoft juggernaut deriding that closed system. It was easy. The system just sucked. It wasn’t even fair. That is to say that anyone tilting at MS back at the turn of the millenium or earlier using any logic system would be right b/c the initial frame was “you suck!”. Everything else after that just rang true regardless of being proven or not. Today, the new target of OSS expletives seems to be Apple. Hell, it isn’t even about an open system fighting against Apple, but about a closed system’s “rights” on another closed system. (Definitely great marketing by Adobe to have everyone defending their closed system as a flag bearer of the open movement, suddenly.)

For the last 3 years, open system people have been complaining about Apple’s iPhone OS. Hell, there are entire communities of practice dedicated to hacking the system open and minions ready to follow on. I think this is great actually. I think that Apple hasn’t even fought back that hard b/c they think it is great. A pretty insignificant group of people, get to tinker publicly with the iPhone system while Apple watches and sees how it fails, etc. I bet they have researchers (probably outside of the fortress in Cupertino) jailbreaking their iPhones and doing reports on use.

But within this group are those who can’t bother. They prefer to just work in an open system. Their prayers answered by Google with Android devices which actually do compete well. It is a totally open system (well not totally) and is even Open Source. Android devices even have all the great features that an iPhone doesn’t have. Seriously, they are all there (forgetting about yesterday’s announcement).

But from a design perspective (sorry it took me so long to get here) and even a business perspective, this just doesn’t matter.


Because open systems people lack patience and strategic thinking. Yup! I said it. There ya go! With very few exceptions (ok, Mozilla you’re off the hook), OSS systems have failed to deliver mainstream, compelling, engaging, successful products. Even Android, while “open source” ain’t really all that open. it is just “opener” and more of its success has to do with carrier wars than w/ phone wars. If Apple could release on Verizon as is w/o any changes the Motorola Droid would be an afterthought to the mainstream market. Maybe Blackberry (as closed as it gets) will maintain some of VZs smartphone marketplace due to its great design focused on productivity more than entertainment and content consumption like the iPhone.

Android and Palm with their rush to “multi-tasking” (BTW, when I owned a Blackberry, I don’t remember really having anything background running except for Email and other PIM functionality) and a clipboard, succeeded to release it before the iPhone. I would argue though that their implementations lacked thorough thought of the strategic idiosyncrasies involved in doing this on a mobile solution. Battery life is only one of the issues here.

As I listened to Apple talk about what they did to make their implementation of Multi-tasking work, it just started to really crystalize for me one salient point about Apple.

It is not about the right feature, but the right feature done right at the right time.

This means being thorough. It means understanding the ins and outs of your system. It means being patient until both design and engineering get it right, and not just get it done.

This level of intentionality is something that open systems can’t deploy well if at all. If everyone is free, then no one waits. No one considers. No one designs.

As a point of context. I have been shopping for an Android phone for my wife who is dedicated to VZ. (I don’t blame her; completely.) I finally got a chance to play with someone’s phone and well it sucked. it didn’t suck out of the box when I tried it at the store, but it sucked on his version. With all the openness he had so many apps running and so many apps integrated into the OS itself that it was beginning to feel like a Windows 3.11 box.

This doesn’t happen on an iPhone and won’t. It won’t b/c the “government” of Apple led by Emperor Steve won’t let you do that to yourself. Why? b/c one person having a bad experience on his device could mean 5-125 others hearing about it. If only Emperor Steve could control AT&T there would never be a bad experience on his device, ever.

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  • http://jarango.com jarango

    I’ve been thinking about these issues too. As a (lowercase d) democrat, I want to believe in open systems. However, I suspect that a fully open methodology is incapable of producing a seamless experience comparable to the iPhone/iPod/iTunes experience.

    That said, I take issue with a few points in your post:

    1. “designers tend to be socialists” — history abounds with examples of successful designers that represent a “totalitarian” ethos. Think Le Corbusier’s plan voisin for Paris (an extreme case), anything by 37signals, anything produced by Apple (arguably the preeminent design firm in the world today). The list goes on. Good design is seldom arrived at by consensus.

    2. “OSS systems have failed to deliver mainstream, compelling, engaging, successful products” — you must be referring to *consumer* products, because OSS has produced incredibly successful, pervasive infrastructure products. They are what makes the Internet possible. (e.g. Apache, BIND. More recently: WordPress, Wikipedia. And I don’t think you should shrug off Mozilla so easily.)

    3. “open systems people lack patience and strategic thinking” — it’s not that people lack these skills; the system itself is set up to promote tactical solutions. The “release early, release often” approach is *the* differentiating factor that makes OSS projects successful (as much as some of them are).

    Is it better to be open or closed? IMO the answer (as usual) is “it depends”: each methodology is good at particular things. Many successful tech products today seem to employ a combination of both. (Even the iPhone’s internals are based on OSS to some degree.) The problem comes when trying to use one or the other against its strengths (e.g. trying to produce an innovative UI design via OSS methodologies is a recipe for confusion, and trying to produce Wikipedia in a totalitarian, proprietary way is nigh impossible.)

  • Tom Igoe

    Speaking as an advocate of both open source systems and of what the Republicans like to call “Big Government”, I think you’re grossly oversimplifying a few things here.

    Not all open source advocates are libertarians. Some are, that’s true, but of us are quite happy with government regulation, in fact we’d like to see more of it.

    “Because open systems people lack patience and strategic thinking.” That’s both insulting and off-base. I’d agree if you said that open source developers have not traditionally been interested in human factors and other elements that make a mainstream product work well. But that doesn’t mean they lack patience or strategic planning. There’s plenty of both that goes into the average OSS project, but that doesn’t mean it’s designed for the masses.

    Steve’s not an emperor, he’s an autocrat with a big blind spot: he thinks he has more control than he does. If he were more like an emperor, he’d be able to control AT&T. Effective emperors know what they control, and what they don’t. I love Apple’s products, which is why I’d really like to see them behave more like a government. Smart governments negotiate with their peers in power, so they don’t get crushed. They also pay attention to all the political dynamics in their control.

    Apple’s treatment of developers at the moment is a bit like the dictator who stages an army purge right after gaining power. It’s an effective way to get rid of potential rivals, but one day you wake up and realize you don’t have any allies. It tends to bite you in the ass.

    You are right about the benefit Apple gains from jailbreaking hackers, though, that is a smart move, as long as they don’t do too much to cause that crowd to lose interest in their product. Until now, they’ve left just enough open to make it seem like hacking had a path to legitimacy. With that gap closing, Apple may lose that benefit. SImply put, it may become more fun to hack other platforms than the iPhone. It’d be a shame to see that happen. It’s a useful pressure valve that lets them maintain the control necessary to enforce usability standards while maintaining a technical innovation base outside the company that they can feed on for free.

  • http://www.oskarmothander.se Oskar

    I like your article you have though of this a lot but I don’t agree with you completely but to some point. However I just have to say one thing, this text was a bit over the top abbreviated.. I’m not familiar with all abbreviations and it became annoying when there where so many. It would look more professional if you wrote the actual word for example “without” instead of w/o. If you want to be take more serious. Good job anyway!

  • dave

    Oskar, sorry. I keep things in formal here. I think of my blog not as composition, but as conversation. I keep thing informal on purpose and don’t really feel the need to change. I actually don’t like formal writing styles even in other outlets. I find them hard to understand and inhuman in their communication style. They often come across as a tad pretentious and condescending. Yes there are other ways to be pretentious and condescending and I’m sure I do it from time to time myself. Just not that way. ;-)

  • dave

    Hi Tom and Jorge,

    Totally appreciate where you are coming from. I feel my use of metaphor is being taken too seriously. Some metaphors just don’t work (as we know) and I guess this one has failed.

    Of course, it is an over generalization. It was meant to be. But I do think though it expresses the continuum.

    Jorge, specifically, Communism is on the left sliding extremism scale of socialism and the diff btw communism and fascism is well minor in practice in that they are both about systems of absolute control. So I agree w/ you. I do think though you are assuming that I mean “Socialism” as purely positive. I do lean that way, but my point again was a metaphor about the advantages of controlling the people to protect the people from themselves. This is the part that I’m lookin’ at.

    So I think we are in violent agreement. Socialism is NOT democratic, so your notion that good design is not by consensus fits nicely with my metaphor.

    By “mainstream” I mean as Alan Cooper put it, products that were designed from the get go to be used by people other than the personae of the designer/builder him/herself. As you noted there have been AMAZING OSS products. But there have not been products that grandma could use done in the OSS movement except for limited examples such as Mozilla (which is really just Netscape which started out as closed as the next guy and actually even as OSS it is very well controlled).

    As for the “skills” issue. If you have the skills but you don’t use them, you can “blame” the system as much as you want, but if you have the skills wouldn’t you show that you can use them? This whole notion of “tactical” focus to me is a core problem of OSS regardless of who it is for. Where is the systems thinking? Service Design, etc.? If these systems are so great why is HTTP still pretty fucked up as a service? (Yes, I know there are lots of reasons) and why is Linux still so fugly in every criteria? Come on, tactical-centric methodologies are flawed.

    regarding your last bit … Wikipedia only really became credible when they started to reign it in and place order on the system. Before that it was quite the mess.

    In the end, my point is that designers tend to trust in control systems, while OSS folks languish in it.

    Back to Tom,
    I’m not sure I agree w/ your pinning Apple as evil against developers. I think that “developers” have to change their thinking about what their role is in the digital age. They are not creating products, but they are creating programming to be used on a channel and just like a reporter working for CNN, FoxNews or MSNBC knows that they better write stuff to fit those outlets, well, the same is true for Apple. The old way of thinking of “developer” as independent of the channel for which they write for doesn’t work, the same way that Apple missed their reality when it came to AT&T v. Verizon. Emperor or Autocrat the reality is the same, in that both have a belief system of absolute truth. That truth may be flawed, but the passion around it is inspiring and like the flaws of the OS itself being tolerable in light of the total system, so are the flaws of that truth.

    — dave


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