Open and shut

Ev Williams wrote an important article, Sometimes things stay stuck, in response to a tweet storm from Chris Dixon.

We often hear the idea that “open platforms always win in the end”. I’d like that: the implicit values of the web speak to my own. But I don’t see clear evidence of this inevitable supremacy, only beliefs and proclamations.

As Ev argues, there’s plenty of case history of media going the other way—open to closed—and staying that way. And I’d argue this becomes something of a one-way valve: once systems become closed, profit potential tends to grow, and profit is a heavy entropy to reverse. 

I worry the web community underestimates the power of capitalism, its sheer mania to sustain itself. After open technologies blew away some weak industries, it was tempting to believe the web would stomp through others just as easily, pushing aside the creaking bones of tycoons and corporations alike. But we now see that when open technology and capitalism do go head-to-head (1), it’s a tough old scrap.

Let’s be clear: the open web is not winning. Today’s most significant tech products and companies are not web-based (2): they are building on proprietary mobile platforms (I include Android here). The ideas, the transformation, the growth are all happening on the closed side. The talent is increasingly moving there, and the money has long since chosen its allegiances. The open web isn't outright losing yet, but its goalkeeper has been sent off and there’s a free kick just outside the box. (3)

I do think there will always be a role for an open web. But it may never again be the primary platform for tech innovation. That’ll be a shame for sure, but I’m a pragmatist and I don’t believe platform sentimentality helps us much. Ultimately, I vote for whichever technology most enriches humanity. If that’s the web, great. A closed OS? Sure, so long as it’s a fair value exchange, genuinely beneficial to company and user alike.


(1) They don’t have to battle, of course. There are companies that seek profit from open systems. But here I’m talking about companies that seek profit from closed systems.

(2) Well, some would argue they are, if you employ a particularly broad definition of a web-based product. For the sake of this post, my quick stab is “a product you can access by typing a URL into a browser”.

(3) I hear geeks love sport analogies.