Open and Shut, part 1: why open-source and closed projects need each other

There’s a lot of discussion in the world around closed, tightly controlled projects and their open-source counterparts. The most popular of which may very well be the iOS vs Android debate. Early on in that discussion, people on both sides tried to predict the outcomes. Who would win the war? Which approach was better?

Unfortunately they both have merits, and Android never did die out. ;)

As it turns out, these two seemingly opposing platforms have been beneficial to each other. iOS used to lag far behind Android in its notifications feature. Android’s Google Play store suffered terribly from malware and low quality apps while the iOS App Store has been a rock. Now, due to the competition, these wrongs are being righted.

Competition is a crucial factor in innovation. As companies strive to cozy up to their target markets, they need a good pick-up line to grab their attention. Competition brings out a company’s A-game.

But I slightly digress from my real emphasis. And that is that there is natural benefit to having both open and closed systems. It isn’t just the competition that causes iOS and Android to improve. It’s also a cross-pollination, if you will, of their very nature as closed and open-source systems, respectively.

Learning from each other

It’s a sobering moment when you finally realize that life is made more sweet because of death, or that sweetness itself is made more enjoyable because of the bitter. There is a tendency in people to pick a side between milk and dark chocolates, when the most delectable chocolate is somewhere in the middle. Because they are opposites, closed systems such as iOS, and open systems like Android, each present unique perspectives and attributes.

For instance, one of the benefits of open-source is wide-spread distribution. Because it is free, it has the ability to spread like wildfire. Another benefit is innovation without competition. Large, open-source projects are often freely contributed to and/or forked by their community members, whose differing voices and opinions fill the need for competition.

Below are some of the benefits and pitfalls of open vs closed. As you can see, they both have very strong merits, and very real problems.

These systems, including their benefits and downfalls, are natural and opposite, and present themselves all around us. They present the same arguments for and against, whether we are talking about iOS and Android or dictatorship and democracy.

Speaking of extreme governments, and yes I’m including democracy as an extreme, I think if you look at the world around you, you might notice that no total dictatorship or complete democracy exists in the wild. All governments are a hybrid of the two. That’s because extremes are very unfruitful. No dictator can make every decision, and the democratic voice of the people will rarely come back unified.

Call me biased, but I’m a fan of the type of government created by the founding fathers of the United States. Tortured by the tyranny of kings, and aware of the chaos that would ensue if given to mob rule, they debated long and hard on the pros and cons of differing government philosophies. What they came up with was a hybrid called a Democratic Republic; a balance of power, designed to enable important decisions to be made quickly (something democracy can’t provide), while citizen-elected officials discouraged the stagnancy or downward-spiral of a government run by an ever-enduring leader. This balance of power has created an environment in the US where innovations are both dreamt and executed frequently.

Better than the sum of their opposing parts

To become the most fruitful, any system will need to find a balancing force. That balancing force can be a market rivalry between two companies who embrace opposing philosophies, such as iOS and Android, or a hybrid government where power is given to both leaders and entire communities. As a corporate example of that last one, remember I mentioned about Google fixing the quality and malware problem with the Google Play apps? They did so by learning from Apple’s approach of screening every app before it goes into the store. Is Android still open? Yes, but thankfully not to the previous extreme.

I’ll always argue that iOS is better than Android. That’s part of the fun of having one or the other of these two giant innovations in the palm of my hand. But I can’t help but tip my hat and say thank you to Android and all the other opposing forces that drive the competitive innovations that make my life better.

Adam Cook

Post Date:
Tuesday, November 03, 2015

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