The battle between 'open' and 'closed' on the web started years ago. But it remains an active front as powerful tech companies and young upstarts alike fight for supremacy in markets new and old.

Yesterday, the debate over open versus closed took center stage at Google's I/O conference, where a panel of prominent tech investors argued the merits of each. Dave McClure, a partner at Founders Fund, raised eyebrows with a blunt statement: "Open is for losers."

That was not music to the ears of YCombinator's Paul Graham, who stated "I’m very afraid of a world in which we are all Steve Jobs’ slaves."

So who is right? Frankly, I'm of the opinion that this is a battle that should be put out its misery. The answer to the question, "Open or closed?", is far too obvious: do what works.

When it comes to open versus closed, companies shouldn't believe that there's some mystical imperative requiring them to choose one over the other. Businesses have thrived with both, and this isn't a black and white analysis in the first instance. After all, few businesses are completely open, and few are entirely closed.

The reality is that there's no one-size-fits-all model for building a successful technology product. But one thing is certain: letting ideology rule how you build your business is not a good model. That's because ideology is a limiting factor. It dictates what's acceptable and what isn't, what's possible and what isn't. It forces entrepreneurs and executives to ask, "Can I?" instead of "Should I?" From this perspective, ideology inhibits one of technology industry's greatest virtues: innovation.

Instead of thinking about abstract concepts like open and closed, companies should focus on finding ways to maximize the value offered by the products and services they build. That's all that matters to consumers and customers anyway. It's the reason that companies like Apple can succeed with closed and companies like MySQL can succeed with open.

Ironically, I think the point that is often missed in debates over open versus closed is the fact that both work together to make the marketplace stronger. Dave McClure says that proprietary technologies promote "cool products and cool ideas" but that's not the full story. While the legal ability to protect one's proprietary creations does encourage innovation, the availability of both closed and open technologies is an even greater promoter of innovation because it fosters more robust competition. Companies pushing closed offerings are forced to stay sharp to ensure that open offerings don't get too attractive, and open offerings can realistically only thrive if they're seen as being 'good enough' to play ball at a commercial level. This dynamic, of course, produces competition, and pushes the makers of both closed and open technologies alike to strive for bigger, better, faster.

That is a good thing, and it's why tomorrow's technology innovators aren't debating open versus closed. Instead, tomorrow's innovations will be produced by companies that accept and embrace markets in which both open and closed technologies exist and compete side-by-side.

Photo credit: House of Sims via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 20 May, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (2)


James Robertson, Web Marketing Manager at

I have to agree Patricio: this is the same reason I gave up on evangelising the Mac platform for creative types: basically you should use whatever tools YOU are most productive with and ignore ideological debates as they are sterile and never result in any kind of beneficial outcome. I like how you've extended the argument to open vs closed.

about 8 years ago

Ed Stivala

Ed Stivala, Managing Director at n3w media

Couldn't agree with you more Patricio, a great article. At last someone has brought a voice of reason to what is a futile ideological debate. 

about 8 years ago

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