The word “open” is rarely far from a Google executive’s lips when describing new products, strategies, and decisions. The problem is that “open” isn’t necessarily better.
In practice, Google could actually offer better services by being less open.
The spirit behind Google’s “open” is meaningless to most people.
And Google is hardly consistent in its approach to openness — it’s sometimes hypocritical.
Meanwhile, Google’s competitors Apple and Facebook have soared despite being two of the most “closed” companies in the tech industry.
Where “Open” Doesn’t Help: Google Android
Google loves to boast that its Android software for smartphones and tablets is “open.” But that hasn’t translated into a better experience for most consumers.
And being “open” has little or nothing to do with Android’s success.
The real reason Android is such a big commercial hit is because mobile phone makers and carriers needed something — anything — to compete with Apple’s iPhone, and Android was the best available option. (What else were they going to use? PalmOS?) Android looked sort of like an iPhone, it was free to licence, and it had an app store of sorts. Good enough.
Arguably, Android could have been just as successful if it weren’t open. (It’s not like there was much credible competition on the mobile OS front.) And it could have been a better product that way.
Meanwhile, “open” has been a disservice to Android, cluttering its app store with copyright infringement, mucking up its user experience with terrible customised editions, giving Amazon the opportunity to embarrass Google by making a better app store for Android, and taking control away from Google when it comes to offering consumers updates to the latest version of Android.
When Open Isn’t Consistent: WebM And Flash
Google recently announced that it would stop supporting the popular H.264 video format from its Chrome browser, in favour of Google’s own WebM format.
There are many possible explanations for Google’s move, but Google’s official stance seems to be that it’s going “open.” The word “open” appears eight times in Google’s blog post, including twice in this sentence: “Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies.”
The practical problem is that Google’s move actually gives a HUGE leg up to Adobe Flash, which is pretty much the exact OPPOSITE of “open.” Flash will now seemingly continue to play an important role in web video, and not shrivel into obscurity.
This actually defeats Google’s vision of an “open” video ecosystem, and shows just how inconsistent (and often hypocritical) Google is when it comes to “open.”
And it’s not like Google is “open” about its search and advertising businesses, is it?
The Triumph Of “Closed”
As Google has spent the last several years banging on the “open” drum, its very “closed” competitors, Apple and Facebook, have grown tremendously.
- Apple’s iOS — as “closed” as you can get — is still by far the better mobile platform to build a business around. The closed iTunes/iPod music ecosystem still dominates.
- Facebook is destroying Google in all things social — despite being a closed-off walled garden — and its ~600 million users seem like they couldn’t care less that their data is locked up inside Facebook.
- “OpenID” — not run by Google, but also “open” — has never taken off, while super-“closed” Facebook Connect is everywhere.
- And so on.
That’s not to say that “open” isn’t bad and can’t be better than “closed.” But just being “open” by itself doesn’t make something good or mean it’s going to be successful.
Maybe now just isn’t the time for “open.” Or maybe “open” is a crock.