Open vs. Closed Systems: What’s the Difference?

by admin on February 10, 2012

One of the longest running debates in the world of computing is about their fundamental nature: should they be open or closed systems? Open systems allow for the user to open the box, tinker with the programming, and customize their machine to be everything they want. Closed systems, however, allow for increases in security, the ability to ensure the user experience is ubiquitous and unhindered, and maintain the software without much hassle. These two disparaging views have been at play since the ability to create a product has been around.

One of the largest rivalries of the common computer era lies in the Microsoft versus Apple debate. Microsoft chose to follow the quasi-open system. While their operating system itself is primarily closed (the source code is not publicly available, though users can “tweak” different aspects of how it works), they freely entered into business deals to put their operating system on as many computers as possible. This led to a dramatic increase in marketshare as IBM bought huge numbers of their OS, and even more were sold as IBM clones (computers that had similar components as IBM, but were cheaper to make).

This is in contrast to Apple, the leading example of a closed system. From the very beginning, Steve Jobs insisted that the computer be made in such a way that the user could not tinker with the hardware or software. While this goes against some of the “hacker” ethos that he and many of his contemporaries shared, he ultimately wanted to design the user experience from beginning to end. This has proven successful as a business model for Apple as all of their products are basically a vertical monopoly; to get the most out of any one of their products, the user is encouraged to use other Apple products. While this may seem cumbersome and a business ploy to some, Apple has made the transitions between devices and the way in which they interact almost seamless, something that most Windows users do not rave about of their own machines.

Linux, in contrast to the quasi-open system of Microsoft and the completely closed system of Apple, is truly an open environment. Originally created by Linus Torvaldus as a variant of Unix, he published his work freely and encouraged that other users do the same. This has created, over the last 20 years or so, hundreds of “variants” of the Linux operating system, each customized for different tasks. Some, such as Ubuntu, focus on creating a user-friendly operating environment, while others, such as Puppy Linux or Damn Small Linux, are intended to run on extremely limited hardware and can breathe life into older machines. While the learning curve for Linux is a bit steeper than either Mac or Windows, the user has complete control over the system and its operating practices. Most users may not prefer this level of “nitty-gritty” details and the need to understand every aspect of the computer, but copmuter experts and hobbyists have shown that they truly love having control over their computers.

Each of these systems has very different advantages. Quasi-open can often lead to larger market shares, but less quality controls exist to maintain the user experience; closed systems offer complete control over the user experience, but more advanced users may make the transition to completely open systems where they can collaborate with others and design systems exactly to their desires. Because each of these systems offers different advantages, vary in their approaches to the fundamental opinion of computers, and, typically, vary slightly in their target demographics, they are sure to be around for quite some time.

What’s your preference? Are you comfortable on an open system? Or, do you like the feel of a closed system that provides a beginning-to-end user experience?


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