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Mossberg: The False Debate Between Open and Closed in Tech

Often, passions are sparked by fuzzy terminology.

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Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Re/code by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Re/code.


Just as in politics, there are passionate, long-running disputes in tech. And, in one such never-ending argument, the weapons used are the words "open" and "closed." Open is usually considered good, and closed is bad. But it turns out these words, which once really meant something, now have very loose definitions and surprising contradictions.

In my mind, that often renders the debate phony.

For instance, would you believe that Apple, which is most often accused of being "closed," supports and uses open software in some of its most recognizable products? Or that Google, often viewed as a champion of openness, uses closed, proprietary software in some of its most familiar products?

It’s complicated. One reason is that there are really two open-versus-closed discussions, not one.

Open source, wholly or partly

The first is a practical and philosophical debate between open source software and proprietary software. In open source software, of course, the code is openly published and can be used and maintained by many people or companies, subject to certain rules and obligations. In proprietary software, a single company usually devises and maintains the product, and its code is considered that company’s intellectual property.

Think of the difference between the proprietary Microsoft Office and the open source LibreOffice. What? You’ve never heard of LibreOffice? Well, that’s one of the problems with full, end-to-end, open source software. While it’s often used in the enterprise and cloud world (like the Apache Web server software), it has been less successful as consumer software.

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Among the biggest fully open source hits in the consumer world have been the Firefox Web browser and the version of Google’s Android mobile operating system that ships without any proprietary Google apps, like Google search or maps. This is called the Android Open Source Project and is mainly popular in China.

According to Ben Bajarin, principal analyst at Creative Strategies, AOSP likely accounted for 35 percent to 40 percent of all Android smartphones shipped in Q4 of 2015. It’s growing so fast that some have called on Google to kill it.

Another twist in this first definition of open versus closed is that some companies and products use a mix of both.

For instance, several of supposedly-closed Apple’s best known products are built on open source software, deep underneath the layers consumers see and use. The Mac’s OS X operating system and the iPhone’s iOS operating system are proprietary, but both are built upon an open source offshoot of Unix called BSD.

Apple’s proprietary Safari Web browser uses an open source engine called WebKit, which, until 2013, also served as the basis for Google’s competing Chrome browser.

(Another interesting note about Apple: Late last year, it made its newest programming language, Swift, which was developed internally and released in 2014, open source.)

Similarly, while there’s a fully open source version of Android, as mentioned, even the clean version of Android sold by Google on its Nexus line of phones adds in proprietary Google apps.

And Google’s crown jewels — its search engine and advertising platform — are proprietary, not open source code, though they offer ways for third-party users to plug into them.

It’s a mix, and that’s why the heated sloganeering among geeks can seem pointless.

Open versus closed products

A lot of the open versus closed debate today really comes down to a second kind of issue that has little or nothing to do with open source. It’s about how easy it is to tinker with, or alter, commercial products. Most people who buy smartphones and laptops have no interest in poking through the guts of the device and altering its basic software (or hardware). But some do, and passionately so. They believe that since they paid for it, the device should be designed in such a way as to make it easy for them to change it as much as they like.

Some app developers feel the same way. They believe they have a better idea and want the full use of the base hardware and software to implement it.

It’s this desire that fuels the view that Android is open and iOS is closed. On Android, you can much more easily change the entire software package. That isn’t really possible on an iPhone. You can "jailbreak" an iPhone to roam more freely around its innards, but Apple makes that difficult.

Once again, however, it’s not as simple as it seems to call one competitor "open" and one "closed." For instance, most name-brand Android phone makers effectively have to license something called Google Mobile Services, a suite of proprietary Google apps. While these are free, they are what allow Google to make money from Android.

And GMS comes with some conditions laid down by Google. Google presses for the installation of certain apps as a group, including the Play Store, Chrome, Search, Maps, Gmail, YouTube and five others. And Google issues "guidelines" for where some apps are placed — that’s why you often see a Google search bar on the first screen of Android phones.

As for Apple, while its iOS is definitely more controlled than Android, that control has weakened over time. At first, there were no third-party apps. Then, there was the app store. Even after that, Apple banned third-party apps that competed with its own core apps. Then, that rule dropped away. In 2014, one of the last big barriers, the ban on third-party keyboards, was abandoned.

The biggest remaining restriction on third-party iPhone apps is browsers. Even if you’re using what seems like a competing browser on an iOS device, the actual rendering of Web pages is performed by Safari. Apple claims this is for security reasons. And while you can add key third-party core apps, like Microsoft’s Outlook, to an iPhone, you can’t designate it or any other as the default instead of an Apple app.

However, for most consumers, and for me, it’s hard to call anything "closed" when it provides a platform that allows users free choice of 1.5 million third-party apps. My iPhone and my Nexus are both immensely open in this respect, and that’s the kind of openness I care about. Sure, Apple curates apps in advance, but very few are ever barred. And Google pulls some after they go on sale, for security reasons or in response to complaints.

This open interface to both third-party apps and third-party hardware makes the closed versus open argument pretty hollow to me.

One more thing …

It’s called the Web. And, even though it’s way too commercialized, in my view, and somewhat restricted by the devices and browsers people use (especially now as we transition to mobile), the Web is truly open. Any of you could have built and launched a website at a number of easy services in the time it took to read this column.

I won’t get into yet another aspect of this open vs. closed debate here: The Web versus apps argument. That’s because, as a mobile user, I find apps better at some things, and the Web better at others. For me, it’s not so much that one is more technically "open" than the other.

But there’s no doubt that it’s easier to create a website than an app and that, no matter how much you or I like certain apps, the Web must be preserved.

It would be a better use of time and energy for the tech community to focus on that than to quarrel about the often squishy theology of "open" versus "closed."

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.