Why Zittrain's Techno-Pessimism Is Unwarranted
from the no-worries dept
Ars Technica reviews Jonathan Zittrain’s new book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. Zittrain is by all accounts a smart guy and an engaging speaker, and it sounds like his book makes a lot of worthwhile points about the importance of open, “generative” technologies. But I just can’t get worked up about Zittrain’s warnings that the dominance of open systems is a fragile, temporary thing. It seems to me that there’s a basic tension at the heart of Zittrain’s argument. On the one hand, he argues (correctly in my view) that open platforms are better for innovation because of their lower barriers to entry. On the other hand, he wants us to believe that despite that inherent advantage, open technologies are on the brink of being eclipsed by closed platforms like the iPhone.
I think this misses a couple of important points. In the first place, I think Zittrain draws the wrong lessons from history. Zittrain himself notes that until the 1990s, the world was full of proprietary networking technologies and computing platforms that had big advantages over open technologies like TCP/IP, Unix, and the mostly-open PC platform. Open technologies had a few advantages of their own — most notably government support of TCP/IP — but open platforms were definitely the underdogs in many respects. And then, of course, the open platforms utterly destroyed the closed ones. Almost everyone now uses TCP/IP, while AOL is now little more than a mediocre website. Virtually all desktops and laptops — including Macs and a lot of Unix workstations — now largely share a common architecture. And almost every operating system not made by Microsoft is built on some versian of Unix.
Zittrain would have us regard all of this as some kind of fluke or lucky break, that the whole thing could come crashing down at any minute. But I think it’s evidence that better technologies tend to win out in the marketplace. TCP/IP beat out AOL and other proprietary services precisely because open architectures enable more innovation. And once an open architecture comes to dominate a given market, it becomes harder, not easier for a proprietary product to displace it, because network effects create tremendous intertia on behalf of established open standards. I’m hard pressed to come up with any examples of a well-established open standard getting displaced by a closed one. Rather, what tends to happen is that new, proprietary technologies tend to get built on top of open ones. The top layers of the iPhone software stack may be closed, but it’s built on TCP/IP, HTTP, and a host of other open standards.
It doesn’t, therefore, make sense to view the iPhone as a threat to “generativity.” The iPhone itself may not be “generative,” but it’s built on the same open standards as more open devices. That means that growing the iPhone market is a net positive for openness overall. True, people who buy an actual iPhone aren’t getting the full advantage of generativity, but they are helping to further entrench TCP/IP and the web, platforms on which other more generative technologies can thrive alongside the iPhone. Moreover, if Zittrain is right that open platforms promote more innovation, which I think he is, then we should expect the same thing to happen at the top of the stack as happened at lower layers of the stack: over time, open mobile platforms like Android should enjoy more innovation than closed platforms like the iPhone, and the former should gradually displace the latter. Consumers tend to choose more open platforms over time not because consumers care about “generativity,” per se, but because they want the phone with the best software, and open platforms tend to get the best software over time. And smart companies will tend to open up their platforms over time, lest competitors leapfrog them with a more open product. Indeed, as Mike pointed out a few days ago, that’s already happening with Nokia’s decision to open source its Symbian operating system.