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walled garden via geophotos ukOur first business was running a proprietary online service called Delphi. Through a combination of luck and perseverance (which is usually the case) we became the first consumer service to offer access to the internet.  It was disruptive and exciting.  The moment we saw people from all of the world interacting with each other, we realized we were seeing the future. The “walled gardens” created by proprietary services started to break down.  And for good reason — would you want a service where you could only reach a subset of people? The lesson was clear: The future of technology is open.

For several years the market seemed to reinforce this perspective. The web took off based on standards for protocols (TCP/IP) and presentation (HTML). Linux followed the same path. A LAMP stack become the default choice for anyone building a new web site. Open source development had the advantage of thousands of smart people around the world helping to evolve the code. The dream of collective innovation and universal collaboration had come true.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Microsoft’s technology wasn’t really “open” like Linux but it could be licensed by any hardware manufacturer.  Innovations based on assembly, marketing and distribution gave rise to huge companies such as Dell and Gateway.  Microsoft became so large and powerful that they were being pursued by the government as a monopoly.

In the late 90s I looked at these market dynamics and proclaimed Apple headed for the dust bin. I wasn’t the only one.  My logic was a proprietary system where both software and hardware were created by the same company couldn’t keep up with the broader ecosystem of openly licensed software. The open standards train was unstoppable.

With a quick Google search you can find dozens of articles by other industry pundits proclaiming Apple was “doomed” because it chose not to license its operating system to other vendors. For example, this quote from an article on Salon.com:

Apple did everything wrong, Gates did almost everything right. Gates is a very vicious competitor and will give you no quarter. But the guy is very smart and sees every opportunity.

We all know how this story turned out. These predictions seem remarkably misguided now. By maintaining control of both the hardware and software Apple was able to create something unique in the market: a beautiful, dependable, consistent, simple user experience. This advantage became more significant as technology moved from early adopters to mass market. Apple create an emotional bond with its customers. Of course Steve Jobs was a very rare person who could literally see what people wanted before they knew they wanted it, but he was able to fulfill that vision by maintaining end-to-end control of the experience.

The Open versus Proprietary debate continues and Apple is still playing a central role. In the area of mobile operating systems there are now two primary players: Apple’s proprietary iOS and Google’s open Android operating system. While Apple has dominated since introducing the iPhone, Android is catching up with sales surging due in large part to innovation by companies like Samsung.

The debate between Open versus Proprietary has extended beyond mobile operating systems to the other key area of mobile technology:  Apps.  On the open side, there’s a lot of excitement about the potential for HTML5 web apps to match the functionality of proprietary iOS or Android apps. For developers, the promise of write once, run anywhere and on any device is alluring. For companies it could represent significant cost savings because there’s only one code base to maintain. Even Apple is publicly supporting the open approach of using HTML5. In fact they have a “showcase” to illustrate the advanced features accessible with HTML5 via their Safari web browser:  www.apple.com/html5 .

But Apple is both smart and sly. They are eager to reinforce their market advantage. They’re open enough to encourage new standards such as HTML5 in part to help quash other rich media presentation technologies like Adobe’s Flash. In his 2010 post called “Thoughts on Flash” Steve Jobs criticizes Adobe for being proprietary and cites HTML5 as the open alternative: He said: “New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too).”

The more native apps that are developed, the more Apple serves as the gatekeeper and platform on which all experiences take place.  With Apple’s sales volume, native iOS Apps are becoming an alternative to the web.   Brian Hall makes this case well in his blog:

As I’ve written in the past, Apple is on a clear path to construct a (alternate) web that is better, safer — and larger — than the one we’ve all grown up with.

All of these dynamics lead to very difficult decisions for developers.  There are advantages and drawbacks to each approach.   By providing a beautiful, vibrant, diverse, and editorially vetted collection of apps, Apple can create an elite web. And if consumers have a good experience, they won’t demand change.  End users don’t care about technology; they just want something that works.

There are now much better tools based on HTML5 that can provide utility across multiple devices. Whether or not HTML5 can be translated into a brilliant user experience and brand attachment is still to be seen. It has the advantage of being Open, but has the disadvantage of not being fully accepted into Apple’s ecosystem.

Sergey Brin added fuel to this debate when he criticized Facebook and Apple for threatening the “Open Web”.  As this article in BusinessInsider points out Google has a strong commercial interest in keeping the web open because whatever is open can be index and therefore monetized by Google.

So the debate about Open versus Proprietary will continue. Meanwhile, over the past 17 years, Apple has gone from teetering on the brink of bankruptcy to recently surpassing Coke as the most valuable brand in the world. Ironically, the advertising folks at Coke have been using the tag line “Open Happiness.”  In one of their recent commercials includes a soundtrack by Super Tramp with lyrics that say “now’s the time that we need to share and find our way back home.”   I’ll let you figure out exactly the best way to do that.