As I look back over the year, it strikes me that most of the big controversies and major computing trends can be seen as a battle between proprietary systems and open systems.
Such battles have been going on for a long time, with the concept of openness certainly winning the PR war. Any vendor with a proprietary strategy is likely to talk about how "open" it is, especially in this world where systems all have to interconnect, and the big platforms are competing to attract developers.
The biggest battle on this front over the past two decades has been between Windows and Linux. Windows still accounts for the vast majority of traditional desktops and laptops, and there are no signs of that changing. But while Windows servers sell many more units than Linux servers, Linux is gaining significant market share in the server market.
Even so, the big migration seems to be towards new mobile platforms, where Apple and Microsoft's proprietary platforms are losing in share to Google's Android, which is an open source platform (indeed, based in part on Linux). Yet in this new mobile world, the concepts of openness are changing.
In the traditional PC world, anyone could write, distribute, or install software without the platform vendor getting involved. Microsoft and Apple do not even have to know about any of the thousands of others consumer applications and utilities, or the corporate applications written for Windows or Macintosh.
In the mobile world, though, application distribution is pretty much controlled by the big platform makers. Apple's App Store does make it easier on one level for an application vendor to get distribution, and it certainly boosts security, but it means that Apple gets approval power.
The same is true with the Windows Store for new Windows 8 apps. Apple and Microsoft both allow any application to be installed in their desktop environments, but they seem to be getting stricter there as well. Google is also making a bigger push for apps from its Google Play store, even though Android is technically open. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are even more proprietary with their Kindle and Nook platforms, respectively, as they really try to tie customers to their content.
There are positives to a more locked down environment, like an easier selection process and better security. Take note, though, that Google is facing complaints about Android malware, which is in turn making it tighten its restrictions. Regardless, there's no question that the result is less openness.
Even more importantly, all the platforms now want to control your experiences in a much more holistic way. Not only do they want you to use their OS and their app store, but they want you to buy your media through them and use their web platforms to store your content. Apple has iOS, the App Store, iTunes, and iCloud; Google has Android, the Play store, and Google Drive; Microsoft has Windows, the Windows Store, Xbox Music and Video, and SkyDrive; and Amazon (which uses a modified version of Android) has its Kindle, Amazon Appstore for Android, and Cloud Player.
You can get Amazon's Kindle reader and Cloud Player on an iPhone, but you can't buy media directly through them. In part, that's because Apple wants a cut of all in-app sales. You can, however, go to Amazon's website and buy content, then access it through one of those apps. It's clear that Apple wants you to use iTunes.
Similarly, on a Windows Phone, you buy your music through the Xbox music service. The same goes on a Kindle, through Amazon's store. Android is a bit more open; Google wants you to use Play but as of now, you can also use Amazon's MP3 store. Google Drive and SkyDrive are available on iPhone, but with some limitations, supposedly because of payment concerns. iCloud only works on Apple devices, not on Android or Windows platforms. It's not quite a walled garden, but it's getting there.
We're even beginning to see this with mail clients. Google is no longer going to support Microsoft's ActiveSync (Google Sync) for new Gmail connections, which should make using the regular mail client on iPhone harder, and potentially cause even more trouble for Windows Phone users. Why? In part, it seems like Google wants you to use Android, and if not that, the separate Gmail app for iPhone.
In the mobile space, there has been a lot of talk about a battle of the ecosystems, with Apple, Google, Microsoft, and even Amazon fighting it out. But as the systems become more closed and more tightly integrated, my worry is that consumers are getting caught in the crossfire.
Michael J. Miller is Chief Information Officer at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Mr. Miller, who was editor-in-chief at PC Magazine from 1991-2005, authors this blog for PC Magazine to share his thoughts on PC-related products. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Mr. Miller works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.
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