The Repeating History of Closed Platforms

I was one of the many that loved the iPhone AppStore platform.  Consumers marveled at how we could easily buy any application we might want, vetted with a nice rating system.   Developers were shocked at the ease with which it seemed possible to monetize on simple applications.   The only downside seemed to be the occasional political or ambiguous AppStore rejection.

Looking back now, the recent changes to Apple’s developer terms of service are not so much of a shock.  They are just the continuation of Apple’s past policies.  It’s the same pattern of gradual erosion of Consumer and Maker rights we see on any platform over time.  If you look beyond the scope of software and include any marketable good, you see a long history of this pattern repeated over and over.  Consider cable television and the music industry.

At first, closed platforms are great.  They get the both the Consumer and the Maker what they need as fast and easily as possible, because that’s the platform provider’s job.  The platform providers are competing against each other and so must cater to both the Consumer and the Maker.  However, this soon changes.

Over time, one of two things happen, both bad:  Either a single provider wins out and gains a monopoly, or platform providers conspire together.  The platform then becomes a weapon in the corporate war chest.  The ultimate end is control over both the Makers and the Consumers until a new revolutionary platform emerges, catches the old players off guard and the process begins again.

The only escape from this pattern seems to be the open source community, a community in which the Makers have taken complete control by keeping out profit-seeking Providers.  However, this seems to have the unfortunate side effect of alienating Consumers.  Perhaps this can be remedied by a benevolent Platform Provider, but I’m not holding my breath.

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3 comments

  1. Well, you already know how I feel about Apple iPhone controls especially as extended to iPad. But I still have hope for the effects of the open source community. I don’t really think they alienate consumers though specific products might. Even if the products are non-profit, many of the uses can be for-profit and consumer oriented. How many people, even grandmas, run WordPress blogs without thinking of the software they use? They buy a package form a hosting provide for a few bucks a week that magically includes installation and they’re off. How many non-tech people use Android phones without thinking of the OS? To them it’s just a great phone because the mobile provider and the phone manufacturer made a good package.

    And each product really has a lot of choice. If the community opinion splits on the correct direction, they don’t just hunker down and make a decision no one wants. Many times a new branch is opened for following the idea. Many Linux distributions. Many LAMP distributions. Choice.

    And one of the most important things the open source community does is to force the for-profit companies to make good products. If they make products, they had better be good enough and easy enough and reliable enough to demonstrate value over being able to get the same functionality for free including future upgrades.

    –Al-

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