Monday, 6 October 2014

Ecosystems

One of the talking points in IT today is 'ecosystems'. What is meant by this is that if you have an Android mobile phone you are pretty much going to use Google Mail, Google Maps, Google Search and the Google Play Store. Similarly if you use IOS devices then you are in the Apple 'Itunes' universe. If you use Blackberry or Windowsphone you end up buying goods and services there.

In years before the 'mobile revolution' the ecosystem was more simply described as 'lock in'. Up and coming products would tout openness and interoperability. Established players would be trying to keep consumers by making it more difficult to leave. Apple is a good example. The first Apple computer was built with standard components based around adding adaptors to increase functionality. The Mac was a closed environment in which upgrades were only possible from Apple dealers and, latterly, the Apple Store. They even added proprietary screws on their PCs and lots of glue to make maintenance and upgrades next to impossible. IBM PCs were so open it spawned a whole clone industry. By 1987 IBM decided to change the design so that only approved add-in cards could be used. This was called microchannel architecture. The industry rebelled and the clones won leaving IBM to retreat from the PC business.

Microsoft was criticised in the past because it had a virtual monopoly on PC operating systems and having a closed environment in which Microsoft were gatekeepers.

Standing against this business model were people such as Richard Stallman, who is best known for the Free Software Foundation and GNU. He believes all software should be free, source code published and people should be free to modify code as they see fit. Open software advocates see lock-in and manufacturer based ecosystems as being absolutely against this. These days although Linux fans tout the openness of their system the most popular version by use is Android on mobile devices. So there is some irony that the mobile implementation is dominated by Google and the Google ecosystem locking consumers into a particular experience mandated by Google on manufacturers that want to use Google services. So in the Android world, despite its 'open' origins, it is now a closed ecosystem.

Microsoft do champion Windowsphone. I have a Lumia 1020. However there is an irony that Microsoft produces apps for Windowsphone, Android and iPhone meaning that Microsoft's ecosystem is available on all popular mobile platforms. Microsoft was always criticised and, in some instances, hated by open source advocates now finds itself as a cross-platform service provider in the most open ecosystem.

Funny old world.

 

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