Open vs. Closed Architectures

There has been much Apple bashing in cyberspace as well as the ‘dead-wood’ parts of the press of late. To the extent that some people are now turning on those that own one of Apple’s wunder-devices (an iPad) accusing them of being “selfish elites“. Phew! I thought it was a typically British trait to knock anything and anyone that was remotely successful but it now seems that the whole world has it in for Mr Jobs’ empire.Back in the pre-google days of 1994 Umberto Eco declared thatthe Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach — if not the kingdom of Heaven — the moment in which their document is printed.

The big gripe most people have with Apple is their closed architecture which controls not only who is allowed to write apps for their OS’s but who can produce devices that actually run those OS’s (er, that would be Apple). It’s one of life’s great anomalies as to why Apple is so successful in building products with closed architectures when most everyone would agree that open architectures and systems are ultimately the way to go as, in the end, they lead to greater innovation, wider-usage and, presumably, more profit for those involved. The classic case of an open architecture leading to wide-spread usage is that of the original IBM Personal Computer. Because IBM wanted to fast-track its introduction many of the parts were, unusually for IBM, provided by third-parties including, most significantly the processor (from Intel) and the operating system (from the fledgling Microsoft). This together with the fact that the technical information on the innards of the computer were made publicly available essentially made the IBM PC ‘open’. This more than anything gave it an unprecedented penetration into the marketplace allowing many vendors to provide IBM PC ‘clones’.

There is of course a ‘dark side’ to all of this. Thousands of vendors all providing hardware add-ons and extensions as well as applications resulted in huge inter-working problems which in the early days at least required you to be something of a computer engineer if you wanted to get everything working together. This is where Apple stepped in. As Umberto Eco said, Apple guides the faithful every step of the way. What they sacrifice in openness and choice they gain in everything working out the box, sometimes in three simple steps.

So, is open always best when it comes to architecture or does it sometimes pay to have a closed architecture? What does the architect do when faced with such a choice? Here’s my take:

  • Know your audience. The early PC’s, like it or not were bought by technophiles who enjoyed technology for the sake of technology. The early Mac’s were bought by people who just wanted to use computers to get the job done. In those days both had a market.
  • Know where you want to go. Apple stuck solidly with creating user friendly (not to mention well designed devices) that people would want to own and use. The plethora of PC providers (which there soon were) couldn’t by and large give a damn about design. They just wanted to sell as many devices as possible and let others worry about how to stitch everything together. This in itself generated a huge industry which in a strange self-fulfilling way led to more devices and world domination of the PC and left Apple in a niche market. Openness certainly seemed to be paying.
  • Know how to capitalise on your architectural philosopy. Ultimately openness leads to commoditization. When anyone can do it price dominates and the cheapest always wins. If you own the space then you control the price. Apple’s recent success has been not to capitalise on an open architecture but to capitalise on good design which has enabled it to create high value, desirable products showing that good design trounces an open architecture.

So how about combining the utility of an open architecture with the significance of a well thought through architecture to create a great design? Which funnily enough is what Dan Pink meant by this:

Significance + Utility = Design

Huh, beaten to a good idea again!

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