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Welcome to the Age of Open-ish Technology

From Twitter’s API and the Android OS, we live in an age when private companies reap the benefits of some openness while maintaining ultimate control.
September 21, 2012

Last week, as Tim Cook took the stage to unveil the iPhone 5, I tweeted snarkily that unless he was announcing a reversal of corporate philosophy to support a more open computing environment, I wasn’t interested.

That led, perhaps predictably, to a conversation with a developer friend who’s deeply committed to open-source, about how Google’s Android is hardly a case study in openness. He argued that the difference between Android and iOS was smaller than is commonly appreciated in the media; I argued that the ability to fork Android still matters. For me, the result of that debate was simply the reminder that Android is an open-source project controlled (rather than supported) by a corporation.

Fitting, then, that only days later news dropped about Google objecting to Acer’s partnership with Alibaba, as Google alleges the Chinese company’s new mobile operating system is an Android fork. Whether or not that claim is true, the point is that Open Handset Alliance members like Acer have to play by Google’s rules.

So is “technically open but tightly controlled by one company” better than closed? I’d still argue yes, and Tim Wu makes what is to me a compelling case for Google’s commitment to openness compared to Apple in his book The Master Switch. But for the sake of argument, I want to ask if it’s possible that the mostly-kinda-sorta-open might be crowding out truly open-source development.

Just over a month ago, blogging and RSS giant Dave Winer wrote a post in which he accused venture-backed companies of being predatory to the open development community. Those companies, he wrote, “feed off open development work, destroy the value of its open-ness, and put little or nothing back.”

After reading this, I reached out to several entrepreneurs, startup developers, and VCs for their takes, and what I heard was that startups often take great pride in their contributions to open-source, and that while they may gain advantage from open-source software, they don’t bleed value from it. That’s the beauty of nonrival goods, after all.

And yet I can’t help but worry about the impact that open-ish software might be having. Whether it’s a nominally open-source project under a single company’s control or a now-ubiquitous service like Twitter unilaterally determining just how “open” or not its API will be, we live in an age when private companies are readily acknowledging the many benefits of some kind of open mentality. There’s a recognition that you should let lots of other people contribute to your product or platform, but this decentralized activity is in many cases still coupled with centralized control. If there’s damage here, it’s less to open-source projects that exist, and more to the ones that never get a chance to.

I’d still take a more open API over Twitter’s new, more tightly controlled ecosystem, and I prefer a Google-controlled openly licensed mobile operating system over a proprietary one. And most of all, I believe deeply in the transformative power of the two economic models mentioned here: venture-backed entrepreneurship and commons-based peer production. How those two should interface with one another, I’m not sure. At the very least, in this day and age it’s clear that the question to ask isn’t Is it open? But, rather, Is it open enough?

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