Open and Shut
Open platforms aren't the Holy Grail their proponents claim - it's time to let go of this pointless ideology
Stirred by comments from Valve boss Gabe Newell and no doubt inspired by the high degree of focus being afforded to iOS products this week, the question of "openness" is once again at the forefront in many conversations and commentaries around the games business. We are, according to many of those with an opinion to offer, sliding inexorably into a morass of "closed" systems - a term which tends to be spat out with the sort of intense dislike usually reserved for war criminals, evangelical Christian politicians and Marmite.
I have to confess to being a bit baffled by the sheer strength of the knee-jerk reaction against supposedly closed platforms such as iOS - especially when they come from the mouth of the operator of a platform which is arguably every bit as closed off as Apple's own walled garden, namely Steam. I can't help but feel that the language of the largely ideological crusade against "closed" technology platforms led by the likes of Cory Doctorow or Richard Stallman has been co-opted and twisted to fit a rather different debate around business models, resulting in both confusion and a high level of polemic aggression.
The reality is that the "closed" systems against which so many people are eager to rail aren't actually all that closed at all - and that the so-called conventional wisdom which smugly states that open platforms will always defeat the closed alternative is not actually particularly conventional thinking, nor is it anything that remotely deserves the title of "wisdom".
Closed platforms are innately more secure; iOS and the home console platforms are not plagued with viruses, malware and piracy, as Windows and (increasingly) Android are.
First off, how are we to define a closed system or platform, precisely? In technological terms, it seems simple. A system is closed if you can't execute code of your own choosing on it - if you can't write or acquire any piece of code you want and run it on the system, it's a closed system. Of course, there are subtleties even in this definition - even the most open of operating systems applies limits to what code can do in order to create a secure environment for other code, but they remain "ideologically" open in that you can write or download code to do whatever you want.
Windows, then, is an open platform, as is OS X - and even more so the various flavours of Linux or Chrome OS, which actually allow you to modify the source code of the OS itself, should you so desire. Game consoles are fundamentally closed on a technological level, because they only execute code signed by the platform holder, and the same applies to iOS, which only executes code downloaded from the App Store and hence approved by Apple. Android meanwhile is open, because there's little or no approval process for the Android Market, and besides, side-loading of your own applications is officially supported. Steam, under this model, is distinctly a closed platform for the same reason as iOS.
That's the technological perspective on open-ness, and if we look past the ideological debate, there's one thing which should leap out at you from the consumer standpoint. Closed platforms are innately more secure; iOS and the home console platforms are not plagued with viruses, malware and piracy, as Windows and (increasingly) Android are. (OS X is arguably a more secure platform not because it is innately more secure, although its UNIX foundations no doubt help, but because its users tend to treat it as a closed platform - installing far fewer applications and plug-ins than their counterparts on Windows, and thus providing far fewer vectors for infection).
In fact, if we take the perspective of the "honest consumer" - someone who doesn't want to pirate their software, basically - then closed platforms are pretty much beneficial all the way. You get a trusted source for your software, a guarantee that it won't damage your hardware or data either by accident or by malicious design, and a single billing relationship with a trusted company rather than being asked to hand your credit card details over to everyone who's made a piece of software you like the look of. The downside may be a lack of customisation options - Android Market teems with complex applications for modifying the phone's user interface which would not be possible on iOS - but there's a major question mark over the extent to which the average user is willing to experiment with that level of customisation (especially since it's often a very buggy experience).
What, then, of the business side of things? This is where the question gets a little more murky. It's not so much that things are "open" or "shut" in this instance, rather that there are a variety of doors - some of which are harder to open than others.
The PC platform - like OS X and Linux - is wide open. Anyone can develop an application for them and distribute it over the web, accepting payment however they wish. However, if you're creating a game for Windows or OS X, distributing it through Steam is pretty much the only way to ensure any level of commercial success (the exceptional case of Minecraft notwithstanding). Steam's function on these platforms is to make them more "closed", delivering a somewhat curated selection of software which is vouched for, tested and wrapped up in DRM protection and a trusted payment system. (Hence why it's so odd to hear Gabe Newell bemoan the advancing success of closed platforms, since his company is presently in the business of selling a very successful tool for closing your Windows, as it were.)
It's odd to hear Gabe Newell bemoan the advancing success of closed platforms, since his company is presently in the business of selling a very successful tool for closing your Windows
Android is in a similar position. It's an open platform in that anyone can develop for it, but if you want to distribute that software widely, you'll need to sell it on the Android Market. That market is not notably curated, which is why it's so commonly stuffed to the gills with copyright infringing software and why the Android OS has to consistently warn its users about things like viruses and keylogging malware, but it does take a 30 per cent cut of revenue. That's the same cut which iOS' App Store takes, but in the case of iOS the market is also curated, with Apple insisting that applications conform to technical requirements as well as occasionally rejecting applications for content reasons (an area in which the giant firm regularly stumbles, unfortunately, although it's been getting the balance increasingly right as it goes on). It's worth noting that for all the carping about iOS being "closed", anyone can develop for it after spending only a few dollars on joining the developer programme - far less, in fact, than you'd pay for a commercial programming IDE for Windows.
At the other end of the spectrum are Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, which are quintessential closed platforms. Not only are they tightly curated by Sony and Microsoft, but these platforms demand an outlay in tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for development kits, QA, technical checklist certification and various other associated costs. Costs are high, the barriers to entry immense - these platforms are completely closed off, and only the lower costs of development itself make them any more attractive than developing a boxed console game would be.
Yet the debate around open and closed platforms simply doesn't reflect this situation in any realistic way. The ideological nature of the Doctorow/Stallman position has leaked over into what should be a more grounded economic and consumer-focused discussion on platform merits, so iOS is slammed alongside Xbox Live for being too "closed", while Android and Windows are lauded as "open" despite the fact that that very openness results in them being riddled with piracy and security problems - so much so that the only way to make money on Windows now (unless you're Blizzard) is to release your game through a closed platform that sits on top of the Windows OS.
Given the reality of the situation, I'm finding it increasingly hard to take seriously the claims of anyone who boldly announces that "open will always triumph over closed" - partially because that's a claim solely based in the experience of Microsoft's PC OS triumphs of the 80s and 90s, a market environment which simply doesn't bear any detailed comparison with today's situation, and mostly because the people saying this kind of thing often seem at a loss to accurately define what they mean by "open" and "closed", except that one of them is bad and the other good for a loosely understood set of reasons.
If "open" were the Holy Grail of platforms, Steam wouldn't exist; as it is, PC gaming today wouldn't exist without Steam. If "open" were the natural best choice, then the iPhone wouldn't be the most successful mobile phone in the world, and Android Market would have leveraged the larger Android installed base to outstrip the sales growth of App Store, rather than being an anaemic cousin in distant second place. For consumers and developers alike, a more nuanced approach to this debate is an absolute requirement; we have to step away from the polemic of ideology and acknowledge open brings with it pitfalls, while closed brings with it advantages. The best solution will be different for each market and each platform; those waiting around for the "inevitable triumph of openness" would do well not to hold their breath.