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Walled Gardens and Closed Ecosystems Are a Non-Problem

Today one of the top stories on Hacker News is called “I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Fucking Ecosystem”. In it, one of the author’s main points is that device makers should make their platforms open and interoperable and he uses the example of not being able to transfer a music library from iTunes to another device. Though he is completely wrong about this, I’m going to let it slide and talk about a larger issue. There’s a segment of the developer community that blindly promotes the idea that anything that isn’t open source is bad and that we need to open everything “for the good of…” I’m not sure. Consumers? Developers? Everyone? No matter who it’s for the idea is wrong and it’s easy to see why.

This idea seems to stem a desire of developers to hack on things that aren’t open. When they hit a wall they immediately complain that X should be open and act like the world is going to hell in a hand basket because platform X isn’t open enough for them. They often justify this by saying it’s for the good of consumers but it really isn’t. It seems as if they want something so badly that they convince themselves of this idea that it would benefit consumers even though there’s no evidence to support it.

So who is it good for?

Is it good for consumers?

Umm… no. You know what consumers want? Shit that works. They don’t want to learn anything new. They get their iPhone and learn how to sync it up with iTunes and they’re set. Now, they can still easily transfer their data from iTunes anywhere else but that’s beside the point. Consumers don’t care if a platform is open or closed. They just want it to work for them and when developers start ranting about openness they tend to foget that the average consumer does not care about the same things developers care about.

Is it good for developers?

Sometimes. If you want to hack away and customize your app/environment any way you want then open platforms are great. But then again, closed platforms like Apple’s App Store and others are making developer’s tons of cash and if it weren’t for these closed platforms’ success they wouldn’t have access to such a huge distribution channel. It is precisely because these platforms are closed that they are so popular with consumers. Openness proponents don’t like to hear this but the strict and often times mysterious approval process and rules of the app stores are exactly what have made them so popular and trusted by consumers all over the world.

What’s the solution to this non-problem?

Let’s suppose for a moment that this is a real problem. What would the solution look like? Well it would look a lot like Linux package managers. There are a handful of distros with different package management systems but in the end whether you yum install or apt-get install you’re more or less getting the same software in the same way. There’s really nothing to differentiate them unless you’re a tech-savvy person. In the case of iOS and Android making the software totally open and interoperable would take away the very thing that defines them. iOS is made for people who want decisions made for them. They don’t want to customize every nook and cranny of their phone. They just want it to work. Android on the other hand takes the opposite approach. While not being truly open, they allow apps from many different app stores and a level of customization that’s unparallelled by any other smartphone platform. An iOS person would hate Android. Now, users of one platform, if they’re happy with it, have no reason to switch platforms. But supposing they do, what’s the problem? You can take your music, videos, and any other media from Android to iOS and vice versa without a problem. Will you have to actually do some work to make that happen? Of course! You might just have to drag and drop some files from one window to another. Even my computer-illiterate mother can do that so why is that such a problem? “Oh, but Bill, the year is 2012 and we should have had flying cars by now! My stuff should just know what I want it to do by just thinking about it”! And to that I’d say “Yeah, that’d be cool but you’re not entitled to it and there’s not a damn thing stopping you from creating it.” Furthermore, don’t you think the companies making this stuff already know this and are working on it? One step at a time, my friends. Huge leaps in what technology can do are often not adopted easily. It took time for people to become comfortable carrying phones with them all time, touch screens, having access to the web in their pockets, and so on. We’ll get there but people just aren’t ready for it.

These platforms are already open and interoperable in many ways. Sure, the OS itself may not be open to you but that really doesn’t keep anyone locked in. iTunes keeps its library data in an XML file that’s easily parseable by a plethora of programs out there. So some obscure piece of data like song ratings can’t be transferred. Well ZOMG THAT MEANS EVERYTHING IS BROKEN AND CLOSED PLATFORMS SUCK. Give me a break with the hyperbole. Even open source applications don’t have perfect interoperability with each other but you don’t see anyone starting internet protests over that.

Why do hackers buy shit they know aren’t right for them?

If you’re a hacker who’s all about open source and a disciple of Richard Stallman than why the hell would you buy an iPhone or Android smartphone when you already know what the score is before buying it. No self-respecting hacker can say that the fact that iOS is a walled garden took them by surprise. When you buy the phone you know that if you want to customize your phone you’ll need to jailbreak it. People who buy iPhones buy them because of what they can do. No one buys one hoping to do something that isn’t advertised.

This fake outrage over walled gardens and closed platforms is getting really old. Open platforms exist and are quite popular and well-supported. But consumers don’t want them. Consumers want to be held by the hand. They’re just fine with buying an iPhone, downloading iTunes, and syncing those two things up for the rest of their natural lives so long as it does what they want and expect without any hassle. Hackers who want more are free to use Android of the new Firefox OS or, hell, even make your own. This isn’t a real problem. What this is is a bunch of developers who have a little complaint and then attribute it to the rest of the world. The fatal flaw in their argument is that nobody wants what they’re trying to push on all of us.

Open source is great. I’m a supporter of it and I have a bunch of projects of my own that are open sourced. You can support open and closed platforms at the same time. There isn’t anything wrong with closed platforms in and of themselves. Consumers aren’t hackers and as much as hackers want to believe that regular consumers want the same things they just don’t. So let’s stop forcing openness on people. It doesn’t make you morally superior or smarter than anyone else.

Walled gardens may be annoying to some hackers but a lack of openness doesn’t make a platofrm bad. And for hackers to complain about such things is laughable. Anyway, I’m off to go buy a Prius and then come back and write rant about how it doesn’t have a V8 engine or even the option to add one yourself (see what I’m getting at?)…


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