Windows is a rare breed: an open software platform that has seen a great deal of success. Open platforms are what people tend to think of when they think of software platforms in general because they are more accessible. If I’m thinking about a software platform not as a consumer but as a development platform, I’m probably going to think of something I myself would have easy access to develop on. Openness of a platform is something of a double-edged sword as it allows more choice for developers and users while also granting that same choice to developers who would love to wreak havoc for one reason or another in the form of viruses and malware. Openness also allows for careless developers to release buggy software that can cause problems for users and give the platform in general a bad name.
The earliest platforms were probably closed. If I am a university sitting on a computer that cost millions of dollars to build, I’m unlikely to allow just anyone to come through and run whatever software they please. Although they have arguably been around longer than open platforms, closed platforms have been mostly taken for granted up until the iTunes app store launched with tremendous success nearly overnight. Closed platforms allow for tighter controls on developers and crafting of a ore unified vision for the platform as a whole.
Windows has often been criticized for the litany of malicious software that has plagued it virtually since day one. Users of closed platforms most often do not have to worry about malicious software. Controls can be put in place to test software for any malicious intent. If something happens to sneak through to users, it will most likely be found and corrected in short order. This does not apply only to malicious software but has been useful to control content for creators of platform that want to portray a squeaky-clean image. This has been used recently by Apple in denying approval to developers of apps that defend the company’s taste in some way. Nintendo also utilized this to great effect by insuring that titles released on its consoles were more family-friendly than those available on competing platforms.
The closed approach to the software platform also leaves companies vulnerable to backlash from both developers and users. Apple has felt this very recently on multiple occasions from initially restricting the availability of the now venerable sub-genre of mobile flatulence noise generators to their recent denial of the Twitter app Tweetie for it’s display of a swear word as a popular tag on the social network. Backlashes often create an underground of users and developers that find new ways to circumvent the closed systems and open them up. Apple has recently been on the attack against iPhone “jailbreaking“â€”the act of removing the iPhone’s protection against installation of unauthorized software. Jailbroken phones have recently gotten their own “app store” which provides developers and users a marketplace to buy and sell apps that, for one reason or another, went unapproved by Apple. Nintendo suffered from this as well in the late 80′s when developer Tengen reverse-engineered the NES lock-out chip to allow their games to run on NES consoles without approval.
Closed platforms allow for the party maintaining the platform to profit directly from the sale of software. Apple has deemed a charge of 30% is sufficient for their services of providing developers the tools, platform, and marketplace necessary for iPhone development. Microsoft has announced a similar mobile app storeÂ that charges developers a yearly fee on top of a percentage of the sales revenue for apps. Gaming console makers have been charging licensing fees to software developers for many years now. In fact, game console hardware manufacturers often sell their hardware at a loss in anticipation of future software licensing revenue.
Because of the accessibility of open platforms and the lack of a centralized marketplace (although there are closed platforms without centralized marketplaces as well), software developed on open platform can have trouble gaining traction. The openness means there is a potential for much more competition which can lead to most releases being virtually invisible. This can be mitigated with beefy marketing budgets but those undermine the open nature of the marketplace. It doesn’t matter that I can develop for a platform without jumping through hoops if I then have to spend a million dollars to sell any copies of my application.
Ideologically, I much prefer the model of open software platforms for one key reason: all closed platforms to a greater or lesser degree leave developers wondering whether a piece of software to which they have devoted significant time, effort, and possibly money will, in fact, make it through the approval process so that it may be profitable. Open platforms give developers the peace of mind knowing that only the market will decide their success or failure. Closed platforms have distinct advantages, but the freedom offered to all parties by an open platform is a hard thing to sacrifice to any end.