Open vs. Closed – The Mobile Debate Rages On

January 26, 2009 by Lisa Oshima | Mobile, Social Media

There’s a lot of talk about the value of openness on the web…. Open development platforms, open APIs, open source, OpenSocial, etc.  “Open” is a popular word these days, and depending on who you talk to, “open” can mean any one of many different things. “Open” as it relates to the mobile is no exception…. There’s The Open Handset Alliance, Android, LiMo, multiple derivations of WebKit, etc.  As mobile and web convergence accelerates, so too do conversations about “opening up” the mobile ecosystem. The underlying implication regardless of definition is that “openness” encourages experimentation and innovation, and that’s a good thing…Right?!  Many of the people I talk to (including most developers) advocate for a more open mobile ecosystem, but plenty of people are skeptical of “openness”. Who is right – the advocates or the critics?  The short answer is that they’ve both got valid points.

Mobile developers are sick of developing for so many mobile platforms and device quirks.  Supporting multiple OSes, screen resolutions, button configurations, etc. is painful, and with OSes coming and going (Note the fast turn-around and/or lack of market penetration of mobile technologies like: MOTOMAGX, SymbianUIQ, Palm Folio, ACCESS Linux Platform, and others).  Traditional mobile development is time consuming and expensive, and making your app ubiquitous across all mobile platforms is practically impossible.  From the mobile developer’s perspective, openness might make things easier.

However, there are plenty critics of openness – including Apple, which managed to change the mobile development paradigm, without being truly “open”.  I’d love to see the mobile ecosystem adopt more open standards for development, but I can understand why companies like Apple haven’t done it.  It’s a whole lot easier to differentiate your product with proprietary software (not only on device technologies like Multi-touch but also 3rd party apps) and a unique and robust distribution channel that is difficult for others to reproduce.

More than any other mobile OEM, Apple proves that it’s possible to create a successful developer ecosystem without being open.  It has strict guidelines for development and limits the way iPhone apps can be distributed to a single channel – the iTunes store.  Each iPhone app is reviewed carefully before it’s accepted to the iTunes App Store.  While many of the developers I speak to complain about the backlog for app acceptance, they all wholeheartedly embrace the iPhone platform because “it’s easy.”  While technically closed, Apple’s mobile OS is based on commonly used “open” web technologies (WebKit), so it’s easy for web developers to learn. There are millions of iPhone and iPod Touch users to target, and there’s a great distribution/ monetization strategy in place through iTunes.

Critics of “openness” often question the financial viability of a 100% open approach. Take Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer who bashed Google Android:

I don’t really understand their strategy. Maybe somebody else does. If I went to my shareholder meeting, my analyst meeting, and said, ‘hey, we’ve just launched a new product that has no revenue model!’…I’m not sure that my investors would take that very well. But that’s kind of what Google’s telling their investors about Android,” he said.

In the short term, he’s right.  In the long term, if Android is successful, Google will be able to monetize through advertising and/or selling aggregate data about user behavior.  But, creating a successful advertising strategy requires millions of eyeballs, and right now, Android is a gamble.

Other critics say things like, “Open is dangerous because it can’t be controlled.” In reality, “Openness” is a lot like personal freedom: wonderful in many ways but easy to abuse in the wrong hands and without guidelines.  In the US, for example, we are, for the most part, free to do what we like, but there are laws in place to discourage bad behavior and consequences for breaking laws.  I’d much rather live under a democracy than a dictatorship or an anarchy like The Lord of the Flies.  Some “open” technologies provide guidelines for development.  Others don’t.   There’s got to be a happy medium.

Google prides itself on the ‘openness’ of the Android platform and doesn’t provide strict rules for development… Google has a decency policy and reserves the right to pull any app from the Android Market.  However, Google is not acting as a gatekeeper when it comes to making or distributing Android apps. Google’s policy encourages innovation, but it also means that it’s possible for malicious or untested apps with a strong viral appeal to make their way onto dozens and possibly thousands, even millions of users phones before they’re recalled.

Case in point – Today, IntoMobile reported that an app called “MemoryUp” was removed from the Android Market for allegedly erasing the memory cards and address books of its users.  Simon Sage writes:

This may be the unfortunate reality of Android’s open source philosophy – the Market could continue to host faulty or poorly-done applications because everyone has the power to write one. User reviews can be faked, and heavy policing is not only impractical, but counter Android’s vision.

Open mobile policies with limited guidelines can also make users and their contacts more susceptible to mobile viruses, as I mentioned in my recent post. A rampant virus on an open mobile platform could negatively impact both mobile owners and anyone with an email or mobile number listed on an infected mobile phone. A virus on a truly open mobile platform would be particularly nasty because it could simultaneously spread through Internet enabled mobile apps, SMS/MMS, and email.  So, even if it stopped spreading through mobile apps, it could continue to spread through email and SMS/MMS. The most likely phones that would be impacted would be smartphones on wholly open development platforms that provide access to PIM (calendar and address book) data but don’t closely regulate free app content or distribution.

There are clearly a lot of pros/cons on both sides of the open vs. closed mobile debate, and so far, I don’t see a clear winner.  My vote is for open development standards combined with guidelines (and consequences) for developers that protect consumers from malicious apps.  I also believe that mobile OEMs and OS developers should be able to differentiate themselves.  Without differentiation, the mobile ecosystem will collapse, and that’s bad for competition and innovation.

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  • Hi Lisa, Thanks for this update.

    I'm a new media artist working in out of home sites using large scale digital projectors to transform public spaces into immersive virtual environments. I am passionate about interactivity and UGC and have built these into my art practice.

    I've just become a visiting research fellow at the Mixed Reality Lab in Nottingham University, UK where I am exploring how to connect out of home creative experiences with online technologies via the cell phone.

    I've just joined VOX and am so pleased to have found your blog site via the Thinking Woman Group. Consider me from now on to be an avid reader!



  • Great post! I get more and more skeptical of Google Android as time goes by. I know I'm not the only one that feels that way. Wondering with all the smart people they have there, if they realize how the public perceives Android.

    Also, I'm interested how the Palm Pre enters into the game. Will it reinvigorate the old developer community? Or will it create a new mobile developer community of widget developers that never considered developing for the mobile before? Time will tell.

    Keep up the good work!



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