Babies, bath water and open platforms

Steve Jobs: “You don’t want your phone to be an open platform.”

More Steve Jobs: “These are devices that need to work, and you can’t do that if you load any software on them. That doesn’t mean there’s not going to be software to buy that you can load on them coming from us. It doesn’t mean we have to write it all, but it means it has to be more of a controlled environment.”

It’s widely understood that Microsoft beat Apple in the PC game because Apple was a tightly integrated, closed platform, whereas Microsoft was an open ecosystem where anyone could play (albeit at their own peril).

Clearly, the strategy has not adapted well to digital media players. Why? Because people are tired of products that don’t work. Anyone who has ever had to glue a PC back together for a family member knows what I mean.

Does “open” have to mean “poorly integrated” though? Clearly, I don’t think so, given how much I’ve invested in Linux over the years and how much I’m investing in the LSB now. And the job the distributions do in the Linux world is nothing short of amazing, if you think about it—taking thousands of moving parts written by thousands of different people and crafting them into what appears, for the most part, to be an orchestrated whole.

Personal experience bears this out too—it’s not that the entire Windows Media ecosystem produces bad products (iTunes pales in comparison to Rhapsody), it’s that the integration points are extremely fragile (e.g., I tried Rhapsody To Go with a Plays For Sure device, which was an awful experience). In other words, just like a chain, an open ecosystem is only as strong as its weakest link, because it’s the links where things break.

Sure, there are bad products. I’ve owned no less than two MP3 players in the last few years, and they were pretty terrible.

It’s the very, very simple things too. For example, I listen to a lot of podcasts. There’s (gasp!) a Podcasts menu on the iPod, whereas on every other device I’ve owned, podcasts are interspersed with the music, making them difficult to find and, adding insult to injury, mixing gobbledygook into my otherwise well organized collection. Furthermore (gasp!), the iPod keeps track of which podcasts I listen to, and in concert with iTunes, automatically deletes the ones I’m done with. Them’s lasers!

Ah, iTunes. Despite the fact that anyone in the world can write a podcatcher (it’s just RSS with enclosures, fer godsakes), the only one I’ve ever used that works worth a damn is iTunes. Everything else is just “integrated” with bailing wire—create a Windows Media playlist, drop it in this directory, etc.

The situation on Linux is a bit better, but guess what—Rhythmbox, Banshee, etc. didn’t work with either of the open media players I owned, even though the integration point for one of them was the file system. No, the players on Linux support the iPod best because that’s what everyone has, and if I’m going to pay extra for the iPod, aren’t I primarily buying the integrated experience? (On a related note, I’ve never understood why people pay top dollar for Macs and install Linux on them. But I digress..)

Once you taste the fruit of the integrated experience, it’s easy to get sucked in all the way. I eventually tired of all the wasted time and money trying to use an open media player and broke down and bought an iPod. Not too long after, I canceled my Rhapsody subscription. Why? Because I couldn’t use it with my iPod. My overall music experience is diminished (I’m a big believer in the celestial jukebox), but I want one music platform, not two. And the iPod is the one with critical mass. Anything else is swimming upstream.

Are open platforms doomed then? I think that’s, as they say, throwing the baby out with the bath water. The key is to have open interfaces, and the key to having open interfaces that work is cooperation between the vendors that implement them. Perhaps surprisingly, the iPod is a good example of how it can be done. The biggest reason for my iPod purchase: I can hook it directly into my car stereo instead of using an FM transmitter. Apple isn’t getting into the car business—it’s decided to cooperate with other companies to make this work. And you don’t hear too much about people calling their technophile relatives to come glue their cars back together. (And talk about the importance of not crashing..)

The lesson here, it seems to me, is that an ecosystem is never the sum of its parts—it’s either a whole lot more or a whole lot less. Furthermore, it’s the responsibility of the vendors (and community) that make up that ecosystem to ensure the result comes up on the right side of the equation in the final analysis.