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The friction of closed systems.

There are a lot of interesting stories and happenings in the tech world of late. The latest seems to be Bob Cringely’s article on the merits of Apple’s purchase of P.A. Semi. This article really linked a number of areas that  I’ve noticed have been bumping up against a slow, but growing trend – open access to the inner workings of modern technology.


The first example, a claim of Bob’s, is that Microsoft spent $5 billion developing Vista. The second example is Apple’s locking out or down certain technologies in the iPhone SDK, things like Skype. The third is speculation about the future of Apple and PowerPC now that Apple owns PA Semi, a company known for low-power PowerPC chips.


First of all, Apple and PA Semi. Cringely’s forums were ripe with talk of Apple returning to PowerPC, and Cringely himself even supported the idea. Apple’s current line of computers is still pretty proprietary in terms of the code, but moving to PowerPC would even be a move against the Intel platform, a platform widely supported, for a closed system. The last time Apple offered PowerPC Macs, they were overpriced, missing key features, and cost Apple a good deal more money.


But Apple’s also in an interesting position because of the Vista news. Vista is a flop, despite the forced adoption in many cases. XP’s life has been extended, service packed, and ensured by the market remaining loyal to XP mostly out of fear of Vista and the nightmare stories.


If Apple supported open access, like it once did with Darwin, it could be in a much better spot right now with. It might have some decent drivers supporting a broader base of PC hardware. It would have a much healthier iPhone and iPod developer community. And if Apple had supported a philosophy of open access, it might well be in a position to eliminate the lockdown with OS X and make it generally available for purchase for generic PCs, offering a proven, bug-free alternative to Vista.


Microsoft is much in the same position. Even in 2008 Microsoft has never supported a single piece of open source software related to any of its monopoly pieces. Not Windows, Office, nothing. And yet just like computer chips, every computer chip has an operating system, operating systems are commodities as much as the chips they run on are. If it’s commodity, it isn’t innovative. And just as we’ve seen, the commodity can be outsourced, crowd-sourced, and made open because it isn’t a competitive advantage when it’s generic. So right now, instead of the install nightmares and lost data, Microsoft could have a solid operating system, smooth install cycle, and rapid patching of any glitches in that process, if the company had the courage to open source its Windows core, a core that offers no competitive advantage, but did include many hidden bugs and turned off hundreds of thousands of people.


The risk here is transaction friction: companies like Apple and Microsoft putting themselves at competitive risk because they don’t make the best of their intellectual property. So we go on with crippled software, crippled devices. The technology we buy, typically closed, benefits us in fewer ways than it could, reducing the value we get out of it and reducing the appeal it has in the market.


Ultimately, companies that embrace hybridization, sharing access to the inner works while maintaining overall control, will probably ensure their survival, and can out-compete companies that see only closed doors. I sure know plenty of companies that would be a lot healthier if they shared.