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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).

Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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