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Lessons Learned from Open vs. Closed Systems Debate

Much has been discussed and argued about Open vs. Closed systems when it comes to technology products. Even though much of the debate has been in the context of combining software and hardware from a single vendor, the philosophy also applies to today’s complex world of re-usable software components, API libraries, hardware integrations, internet of things, and mobile devices. Apple’s iTunes and iPods is one such example of a modern day closed system. On the other hand, sometimes it does not make economic or business sense to build everything internally and lock it up so no one can get inside. In this blog we briefly review both sides of the argument, Open vs. Closed systems. We then look at lessons learned from open vs closed systems debate which you can internalize and apply to your business and specific innovations and ideas to ensure a truly differentiated and complete solution.

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History of open vs closed systems in the computer industry

The Windows Camp

Perhaps the most famous open vs closed systems debate has been the one between Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac computers. Windows allowed thousands of different computer software and hardware manufacturers to customize the Windows operating system (in some cases) and write drivers to support their devices. Windows could be installed and customized to run on any intel-based hardware. There were many flavors of Windows OS, equally, there were many variations of drivers and programs. There were tons of choices of gadgets and peripherals that you could buy. Tech gadget enthusiasts, tinkerers and hobbyists loved a great ‘chemistry set’ and companies made a lot of money selling products that required some tinkering to make things work. Later, Windows blocked competing products to be installed on their operating system, (Netscape lawsuit). When Windows tried to offer competing products for free as part of the default Windows OS install they were regulated and sued and made to pay millions of dollars in fines. OS upgrades would pretty much set everything back to zero for user experience and for most 3rd party developers. The race to become compatible killed innovation and companies that were seriously innovating became non-compatible. (Some websites won’t work on certain browsers). I feel that the consumers were the real losers who, not realizing, spent lifetime trying to debug a supposedly mass market product themselves, got frustrated because nothing ever just worked, and spent hours on the phone with tech support from multiple vendors to no avail because vendors would just point finger to the other party.  I even heard “just build it and ship it – let the users test it.”

The competition soared, princes dropped, innovation died, differentiations eliminated, profits declined and the consumers ended up with mediocre, clunky, computers with software that stifled the creativity of the development community and the end users.

The Apple Camp

My very first computer science teacher, Mr. Mushtaq Jindani of Institute of Computer Technology, uttered the most profound words I have ever heard about computers.

“Computer is an extension of human brain just like a hammer is an extension of a human arm.”

Apple maintained (and still does) that

“People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”
Alan Kay, a pioneer computer scientists.

Since the beginning and still today, Apple operating system is tightly controlled, you cannot install it on just any hardware. Devices and peripherals and device drivers must be developed under very strict development guidelines and standards. Only certified Apple technicians can open the Apple devices. Products have to pass a very rigorous compatibility certification regiment and undergo extensive testing. It took a very long time and cost a lot of money for new peripherals and devices to come into the market. Back then the Apple solution ecosystem was smaller relative to that of Microsoft Windows and product selection was limited. Developers and consumers who focused on quality and creativity loved Apple. Those who wanted to take things apart and tinker didn’t like Apple products as much. But the biggest benefit of Apple’s approach was that “everything just worked.” You brought it home, opened the box, plugged it in and presto – just like a microwave. Apple used to boast that their products didn’t require manuals.

Computer hardware is designed as a general purpose machine and the operating system or software is designed to make the most out of that hardware. It has been proven that companies that develop tightly integrated software and hardware consumer solutions do much better all around in the long run.

The argument between those who believe in open architecture and those who prefer to have tightly controlled software and hardware systems is almost “religious” in proportion.  Both arguments have valid points in terms of benefits and challenges. Both approaches of developing technology solutions have their valid applications and business justifications.

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Lessons Learned from Open vs. Closed Systems Debate

Here I share with you a few lessons learned from this debate that has been going on for 40 years and how to apply those lessons as you innovate new solutions at your organization. Although this list assumes that you are developing “consumer grade” products, it can be used by makers for products for hobbyists in a more relaxed form.

  1. If you’re the primary product line
    • You must control all aspects of development that directly or indirectly touches your system. 3rd party components, code, systems, products, services must strictly comply to this requirements.
    • You must test (or supervise the testing) of all combinations of products and services that interact with all your products. These are also called use cases or test cases. Corner cases must also be tested especially from user experience perspective.
    • Customers’ Point of View: While evaluating your products and services conduct an end-to-end user experience test including making a credit card charge and then calling to cancel the transaction or get an exchange. I know one CEO who calls his own company’s support line and pretends to be a current or potential customer. I encourage the marketing team to do the same.
    • Evaluate your end-to-end user experience of every possible buyer persona.
    • Test your end-to-end user experience of using your support process.
    • You should be 100% responsible for providing support for your product and all the peripherals and integrated solutions.
  2. If you’re the provider of a contributing technology or you are a development partner
    • You are 100% responsible for end-to-end quality assurance (including user experience) even if you are contributing a portion of the solution.
    • It is your responsibility to make sure that your solution works flawlessly with every product that it integrates with.
  3. Know what your most valuable customers use your product for and do whatever it takes to give them a complete solution. A digital film maker would rather spend 100 percent of his or her time in creating and editing movies, rather than trying to figure out how to connect the camera, import files, or spend hours trying to learn how to use the software.
  4. By giving up control of the software and hardware development, we give up the standards that enable devices to seamlessly work together. The good thing about open architecture and collaborative development is that it’s great for ideas to surface, the occurrence of trials and errors and new products to be created. It’s great for techies and hobbyists, but it’s not ideal for consumer products.
  5. Remember, consumers don’t buy technology, they buy solutions.

When it comes to consumer-grade products, we should deliver nothing but perfection; complete solutions.

The original promise of computers was to make our lives easier. People expect computers to make them more efficient, do things faster, better, and save time. As we embrace Internet of Things, Virtual Reality, and Artificial Intelligence into our products and into our lives, we must expect our household-assistant robot to “just work”.

 

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