Sometimes things stay stuck
Ev Williams
2179

On Inevitability & Pendula

I saw Chris Dixon’s tweetstorm about open & closed systems over the weekend and meant to write something quickly about it —but forgot to write — then was reminded by this nice piece by Ev.

WARNING! This is a super nerdy piece. Technology, tech history, trends. But you already knew that, particularly since I put the word “pendula” right there in the title. ☺

TL;DR: Nothing is inevitable. Open technologies often pervade the world, but closed networks nearly always dominate over time with distribution power. Until the Next Big Thing comes along. That Next Big Thing nearly always surprises people, because it looks like such a toy. Until it doesn’t.

But there’s nothing inevitable about open winning, I think. Technology systems become more open or more closed over time because people make choices and make them that way, mostly in their own self interest (writ large or small), but not always.

While I was at Mozilla day-to-day, when I talked about open & closed systems, I would tell a story something like this: new technologies (e.g. the PC, the smartphone, the tablet, etc etc) nearly always start closed and proprietary — in someone’s garage, so to speak. It’s easier to create something completely new that’s innovative and disruptive if you control all the pieces and aren’t trying overmuch to play too nicely with others. But then over time, technology tends to open up, as the technical techniques become more widely understood, then horizontal layers come in to drive costs down, increase the variety of solutions, etc. The interesting variable in every wave, I said, was how long and messy the “middle” between the closed beginning and the open future is. And of course, Mozilla’s mission with respect to the Web (in the 2000s) was to make the closed beginning as short as possible and get everyone to open as quickly as we could.

But then, like Ev, I read Tim Wu’s extremely important book The Master Switch, and it affected my thinking greatly.

In short: I think my argument is still essentially true, but it isn’t the whole story. I now believe that technology waves tend to go from closed to open and then back to closed again, with the dominant players becoming dominant based on their strength of network distribtion. In other words, you tend to go from propriety invention to Wild West open innovation and then things start to settle down again as a small number of players control the distribution of content on their own networks (nearly always based on the open set of technologies). These networks tend to be few in number, and overwhelmingly dominant in their control over how people experience technology and content. Think Google for search. Facebook & Twitter and now Snapchat for mobile.

The only thing that really unseats these entrenched networks is the rise of the next technology wave — that’s possible because successive technology waves tend to be much larger than what came before. That’s what’s happening now, with mobile completely overwhelming the previous waves of computing, becoming available to many more people, more of the time, with more touch points in their lives.

As an aside, it’s tough to imagine a specific technology wave that will come and make this mobile revolution look quaint — tough to imagine what technology will displace billions of people carrying tiny connected computers with them all the time — but we do know this: it will happen. It’s just the nature of communications technology.

Another thing that’s clear as you look at historical technology waves is that they’re getting shorter: disruption is coming faster & faster. This is an intuitive result: each technology wave increases our capacity to communicate and collaborate more effectively and more quickly.

Companies that are dominant in one wave do not tend to be dominant in the following waves. They can be relevant, and even extremely relevant, but they don’t tend to dominate in the same way. Lots of reasons for that. They’ve got existing businesses to protect. They’re built on previous models of efficiency. They get big and complex and tired. I think, too, that companies don’t dominate multiple waves like this not only because of their innovator’s dilemma issues, and not just because of the challenges of jumping from one technology curve to the next, but also because they have to go through these closed-open-closed cycles of new technology as well.

What’s been interesting about our current context is that a lot of this is really understood, internalized & operationalized by existing huge companies — most notably Google and Facebook — you can see it in their intense innovation and acquisition pace. Mobile was an unusual wave because it went so, so quickly from proprietary closed innovation directly to distribution networks dominating, with virtually no Wild West open phase.

My sense of where things are right now is the same as Chris’: we’re in a period where mostly closed systems are dominant. I’m not particularly unhappy about it — it’s resulted in an explosion of innovation and creativity and objectively great value for consumers and businesses.

I think there are some good reasons to hope that we’ll get to more open systems again in the future — and think that’s important because as good as mobile has been, we’ve also lost much with this recent mobile native ascendance and resulting open web atrophy.

But I do not think that open is at all inevitable. There is no inexorable pendulum motion.

The pendulum will swing where someone pushes it.