On closed ecosystems

October 21, 2012 | Comments Off

I awoke to an email from Microsoft in telling me my Xbox gamertag could be used on my Windows 8 computer and through no fault of theirs this got me thinking about closed ecosystems (aka walled gardens).

The walled garden is an age old proposition by an organization: give up lots of control and they will make sure your life is better. In technology the proposed value to the user is security and a curated experience at the cost of choice and (many times) the ability to customize the environment and various other freedoms.

What I ended up considering this morning is the difference in the Xbox closed ecosystem and the iOS closed ecosystem and more specifically how it reflects on Microsoft.

I am not (I believe) an exuberant fan of Apple but I am a long time despiser of Microsoft. So those are my biases. But I’m on my 3rd iPhone and I’ve owned now about 4 Xboxes (6 if you count the previous generation), so I am a user of both.

Both pieces of hardware participate in a closed ecosystem and I suffer them differently. Now I will also admit up front that gaming consoles have distinct idiosyncrasies due to the content industry but I would also argue the carrier industry was also a cluster at least until the first iPhone came along if not still.

What I’m tying to get at (6 paragraphs in) is that these two companies have very different approaches to the ecosystem. Microsoft tries to extort maximum value. I pay $60 per year to them and in exchange I get increasing ads on my screens, I get updates that increasingly distract from the experience and I get no choice in the matter. Can I leave the ecosystem? Yes and no. I could hack the hardware. The games I own would continue I work but I wouldn’t be able to play online which is, to a large degree, why I own it (and pay $60 per year). And on top of that they limit by choice by choking the content producers at the other end. They force Bing down my throat. In short Microsoft does what it’s always done: it uses its position of power to first further it’s agenda and secondly benefit me. This is the totalitarian dictatorship of closed ecosystem. This is the cautionary tale.

On the other hand my iPhones have updates with clearly defined features. Each iteration of the hardware and the device move the experience forward and (in my opinion) put the user first. Do they make decisions contrary to my desires? Yes they do. CarrierIQ and lately the advertiser tracking have smacked them in the face. But I would argue that Apple has (mostly) successfully fought against carrier stupidity to the benefit of the user. Not always. FaceTime over 3G and mobile hotspot features were unfortunate concessions. They have kept apps out of the App Store capriciously and arguably maliciously. But at the end of the day I submit to their ecosystem because the benefits largely outweigh the costs. I’ve also jailbroken my devices as soon as the option is available, the only consequence of which is possible impacts to my product warranty (which is again unfortunate but less significant than in the Microsoft case).

In either case neither company fully delivers on the promise of a closed ecosystem but where Apple tries to put the user first Microsoft makes a compelling example of the dangers of a walled garden mismanaged by selfishness.

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