There’s been an interesting discussion brewing over the last few days. It all started with Tim Wu presenting his argument that “Open” beats “Closed”. He surmises that Apple only managed to buck the trend because of the genius of Steve Jobs – without which it will succumb to this rule. Here’s his summary:
“In the end, the better your vision and design skills, the more closed you can try to be. If you think your product designers can duplicate the nearly error-free performance of Jobs over the past twelve years, go for it. But if mere mortals run your firm, or if you're facing an extremely unpredictable future, the economics of error suggest an open system is safer. Maybe rely on this test: wake up, look in the mirror, and ask yourself, Am I Steve Jobs?”
“The dogmatic assumption that openness correlates to success, evidence to the contrary be damned, overcomplicates the argument. "Wu's theory is that open should generally do better than closed, unless the closed company is run by a genius." Take the open/closed stuff out of that premise, and you're left with something like this: Companies run by geniuses should generally do better than those which are not. That sounds about right.”
Then Mike Arrington joined in, and proposed a wrinkle, where supposedly the Internet was the real catalyst for Apple’s resurgence.
“Gruber's argument can be condensed down to "Companies run by geniuses should generally do better than those which are not," and I agree.
He goes on to say that whilst he agrees :
“…it's more right to say [Apple’s success] coincided with the end of the pre-Internet world."
But whilst it is possibly “more right” to say this, is it of any use to us? Does this coincidence actually tell us anything? Let’s test it with a few thoughts.
Firstly, let’s assume that when Arrington talks about “the Internet” he’s really talking about the World Wide Web. This makes sense since he talks about the browser being the first thing to install on a new PC. But is the World Wide Web the secret ingredient that warrants an exception to Gruber’s rule?
Arrington’s main argument is that the most important “jobs to be done” on a computer used to be mostly Microsoft Office related jobs: a letter or report in Word, a spreadsheet in Excel, an email or contact details in Outlook. And it’s true that transferring these files between operating systems was definitely a lossy process back in the 90’s. To get these sorts of things done and share or collaborate with others you were pretty much stuck with using Windows. I desperately tried to use OpenOffice when working on a project with PwC, but it was just too painful.
My theory is, that if it wasn’t the Internet (or more accurately the world wide web) that levelled the playing field it would have been something else. The key ingredient wasn’t the Internet. It was time.
Lets look firstly at the changes that have occurred in the very file formats that created the lock-in problem. Microsoft has shifted toward a derivative of XML as a file format for the Office suite. Whilst somewhat bloated, this alone would have improved the binary blob problem of attempting to decode older Office file formats. Part of the catalyst for this was the drive to more open standards for file formats, so that future generations could actually read what we produced. This alone, with the essential ingredient of time, might have made alternative productivity suites a real alternative, improving sharing and collaboration, reducing the reliance on Microsoft and opening the door for the Mac or Linux on the desktop.
And then there’s our shift toward digital entertainment. Music in the 1990s, photos in the 2000s and now video are all new “jobs to be done” that would have been likely to drive change. Over the last twenty years our computers have increasingly became the central hub of our digital lives. While Apple, Amazon, Google, Netflix and Spotify are currently fighting out the transition to the cloud, all of these are accessed via a computer of some sort or other – Mac or PC (or even Linux). In the case of music, this didn’t actually require the Internet. We could just have easily used our computers to play and record, whilst using the SneakerNet to handle the sharing aspects. No Internet required! We already did this with cassettes back in the 80’s which we transported between our Walkmans and ghetto blasters. (Links for the kids who don’t know what those are). We could easily have done this with USBs between our computers since the late 90’s.
The issue is that the jobs to be done by computers are constantly growing. Almost on a daily basis we are inventing new uses for our computers, accelerated by the shift from analog to digital and the rendering in zeros and ones of almost everything that can be. So, it was inevitable that Office would be a small part of stuff we wanted to do. An open Internet wasn’t necessary. All we needed was a means for ubiquitous digital communications. Any network of sorts would have done the job well enough.
The passing of time is the secret ingredient that Arrington is identifying. But then, who of us can avoid this?