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See Inside February 2011

An Open Question: Is Open Source Better?

The success of Google's Android software doesn't prove that open is better



Illustration by Leo Espinosa

According to conventional wisdom, Apple blew its first chance to dominate the computer industry. It missed out on becoming the 800-pound PC gorilla because its systems were too closed. Not just in the literal sense—the original Macintosh computers were sealed tight, so tinkerers couldn’t fool around with the guts—but in the licensing sense. That is, only Apple could make computers running the Mac operating system. Microsoft, on the other hand, licensed Windows to any old computer company—and today Windows runs 90 percent of the world’s PCs.

But then, a few years later, a second experiment ran, this time involving music players. Here again, both Apple and Micro­soft used precisely the same playbooks they had with computers. In this corner: Steve Jobs, insisting on being the sole creator of both the iPod and its software. In that corner: Microsoft, offering its music-player software platform, called Plays­ForSure, to any company that paid the licensing fee.

This time the results were reversed. The proprietary model triumphed—big time. The iPod gobbled up 85 percent of the music-player market. And Microsoft? It took PlaysForSure out behind the barn and shot it.

(Microsoft then ran a third experiment. It introduced a completely new music-player system, called Zune, modeled, incredibly, on Apple’s closed-architecture model. It failed, too.)
So we have several controlled studies with contradictory results. Which is the right approach? To license? Or to control?

Now we are engaged in a great market war, testing which model assures market dominance. It is the biggest test yet: the app-phone battle. This time the war is between Apple (iPhone, proprietary) and Google (Android, open).

Once again, Apple’s approach is to let only Apple make the hardware and software. Nobody else makes iPhones. Google, on the other hand, is taking the Microsoft “anyone can use our software” principle and running with it. Its Android phone software is not only open, it’s free. Any company can make an app phone (or tablet or e-book reader) using Android, without paying Google anything, and even make changes to it.

So far the experiment is shaping up magnificently. Companies all over the globe are pumping out ­Android phones—30 million and counting. Apple has sold 75 million iPhones, but it had a year’s head start on Google.

That makes Android a fantastic success, but as an experiment, this one is poorly designed. The question is: How much of Android’s appeal is its openness?

Truth is, you could argue that “open” makes the customer’s life miserable. It means that AT&T or Verizon can junk up your new phone with icons for their own ugly, overpriced add-on services. (Apple would never dream of letting third parties preinstall junkware on an iPhone.)

Worse, open also means that there isn’t one Android. It becomes a splintered platform of slightly modified versions. Just ask any owner of an Android phone who was excited by the possibility of playing Flash videos when Adobe finally released the necessary Android plug-in—and found that it would run only on a handful of Android models.

Google’s app store is more open than Apple’s, too; Apple, notoriously, employs human editors to approve each app individually. Among other things, that means that you can get porn apps on an Android phone but not an iPhone. But that also means that Apple’s store is better organized and higher quality than Google’s chaotic Android marketplace.

This is going to sound radical. But could it be that “open” is a great big fat red herring?
From the perspective of phone makers, is the openness really the attraction to Android? Or could it be that the greater draw is that Android is a complete, polished, elegant phone OS with built-in software library—and it doesn’t cost the phone maker a penny?

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