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Updated: June 14, 2013 12:51 IST

The open vs. closed debate

KARTHIK SUBRAMANIAN
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Most of the mobile phone buyers settle for an open source software supporting the freedom of Internet.
Special Arrangement Most of the mobile phone buyers settle for an open source software supporting the freedom of Internet.

As mobile phone buyers ponder whether to buy the latest iPhone or some other super smartphone, not many realise they are taking sides in a battle between closed and open systems.

Someone recently put out a tweet that geeks are often more confused than non-technical persons when it comes to purchasing a gadget. The burden of knowledge can sometimes wear you down a bit, which is exactly the situation I find myself in as I decide on what super smartphone to buy. I do not consider myself a geek, just a technology lover keen to understand things and narrate them in an easy-to-digest format.

But a couple of weeks ago, as I sought help from a few like-minded friends on my social networks on what smartphone I could buy, I found myself drawn into a debate that put me firmly on “geek territory”. I was not just buying a phone but also taking sides in a battle: was I going to settle for an open source software supporting the freedom of Internet or a closed source legacy company supporting the monopoly of the Internet? “The choice is yours,” a friend of mine, who works for a leading consulting firm in Malaysia, teased me on Facebook.

The debate

Truth be told, I am not a stranger to the topic of “closed versus open” systems. It has been a recurring theme in the criticism of Apple and its story over the past decade and a half. The company has been criticised heavily for running what its critics have termed a “walled-garden” approach. The company maintains a near impenetrable hold over its devices — from software mechanisation to even hardware restrictions — that make it tough for users to tamper with “industry settings”. One had to either be content with the device and industry settings, or jailbreak it, thereby rendering the warranty void, to personalise the phone and use it any which way one liked.

There are two ways to look at this approach of controlling the experience of the user. Either the “manufacturer knows what is best for the customer and thinks on his behalf” or “the system is altered to suit the manufacturer gain total monopoly over the Internet.” The person most accused of pioneering this approach is Apple founder CEO Steve Jobs. In defence of it, Jobs told his official biographer Walter Isaacson that he treated the computing devices Apple put out more like appliances rather than gadgets that needed constant tweaking and tuning. To put it simplistically, Jobs wanted people to buy his gadgets the way they would buy a washing machine. They need not know what was inside it, how it worked or how to modify it. As long as it did for them what they needed, that was enough.

What kind are you?

As I pondered the debate, trying to figure out if there is such a thing as a greater common good in the technology you opt for, it essentially boiled down to the simple question: what do you want your smartphone to do for you? Do you want it to give as many options as possible, or are you willing to trust its vendors to provide you with their favoured options and just get on with it.

Android, deemed to be the ‘open system,’ offers mobile device users more options than the closed systems of the likes of Apple's iOS or the upcoming Microsoft Windows 8 devices. Its APIs (application programming interface) are way more flexible than other mobile operating systems. This allows users more options.

To illustrate: with an Android device one can choose exactly what browser he would like to view online content with, be it Dolphin, Chrome or any other browser available as a download with Google Play. However, this can be a lot more complicated with iPhone where the default browser is Safari.

There are several more examples where the ‘open environment' of Android has allowed many developers to flourish and thereby allow users to personalise their experience. This also shows in the phones. No two Android phones look the same.

On the other hand, the closed system of iOS has been embraced by millions of users, who seem to like it for its near zen-like simplicity. There is nothing much to differentiate one iPhone experience over the other.

The right answer for each one of us reveals itself once the right question is asked. So what do you want? Do you drive yourself or do you just want to settle into a comfortable seat and enjoy the ride?

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