Scientific American Feb 2011 coverDavid Pogue, in an article in Scientific American looks at comparisons between open source and proprietary technology over the years, trying to determine which is better.  It doesn’t actually include ebook devices in its examination, but it easily could have.

As it is, it compares the Apple vs Microsoft early days, the early music player days (again, mostly Apple vs Microsoft), and now the phone wars (in the article’s take, primarily an iPhone vs Google war).

The article, however, fails to identify a clear winner: It describes wins on both fronts over the years, and leaves the present phone war up in the air.  (This must be why everyone tells me I should be reading Science instead.)

I think if Pogue had looked closer, he would have clearly seen that, at least in his examples, “open vs proprietary” wasn’t nearly as important as the real key in those fights: Consumer choice.  In each case cited, it was consumers’ desires for the technology that did what they wanted, in the best way, that decided the matter… to wit:

  • Apple vs Microsoft: Microsoft won by providing, through licensing with many vendors and an open architecture, lower prices, more choices, and more ways to customize hardware and software;
  • iPod vs MS PlaysForSure (never heard of it?  Neither had I): iPod, by providing a more stylish and seamless music experience that even survived the DRM atmosphere;
  • iPhone vs Google: Still undecided, but ease of use may be leaning in Google’s direction.

We can look at ebook hardware the same way; at this stage, it is primarily an Amazon vs Everybody Else battle.  In this case, Amazon could be seen to be the proprietary platform (having bought an open platform and turning it into a proprietary one), and the other hardware makers, adopting to ePub as they are, can be seen as more open (especially those running Android systems).  No, it’s not a direct correlation, but it’s close enough for comparison purposes.

Again, proprietary vs open isn’t nearly as important as consumer experience… which is why the proprietary Kindle store is still on top with most ebook users in the U.S., with its easy-to-use store and multiple-platform reading apps.  Even Apple’s proprietary platform has shown incredible popularity, outstripping all industry performance estimations, and primarily due to ease-of-use, which is why it may be more of a direct competitor on its own against Android and the Kindle at present.  But as other hardware vendors improve their products, make more Android hardware and apps available, and help to consolidate the rest of the market through sharing of the ePub standard, Kindle’s dominance could dwindle over time.

Bottom line: The future won’t be predicted by the most money spent, the coolest covers, or the most celebrities behind the product.  We, the people, will decide which is best for us, and that’s the platform that will do the best in the market.


  1. The closed-vs.-open divide isn’t Amazon vs. AdobePub (each is as closed as the other). It’s DRM vs. non-DRM. An unencrypted .MOBI or .AZW, for all that the file format is “closed” is infinitely more open than an ADEPT (or Fairplay) encumbered ePub, for all that the underlying file format is “open”.

  2. You can certainly look at the open vs proprietary issue in terms of DRM. However, it’s still overshadowed by consumer experience, witness both platform’s success in a DRM’d market. As much as people criticize Amazon’s DRM’d platform, ease-of-use still puts the Kindle at the top of the ebook food chain.

  3. Geoffrey Moore’s books “The Gorilla Game” does a fantastic job explaining how these things work.

    The problem is people assume “open” and “proprietary” are opposites. They are not. The eventual winner must be both.

    “Open” simply means that you have convinced the industry- including direct competitors- to distribute products that are compatible with your own. This is critical from a supply standpoint, since one company can’t produce enough product to meet consumer demand right away. Itunes was open because it was capable of playing unencrypted mp3’s and files burned from cds. The files distributed by Napster and Kazaa became the basis for many people’s itunes library’s.

    “Proprietary” means that you retain the ability to control and tweak critical aspects of your own product, so that you can give consumers what they want, without having to wait for another company or standards board to approve the changes. This is critical to improve the consumer ease of use. Microsoft was certainly proprietary- they owned all the licensing rights and released numerous updates to get it right. Android is also proprietary- Google has sole permission to create updates.

    So who is both “open” and “proprietary”, according to these definitions, in the e-book space. I would actually say it is both the Kindle and the Nook, but on different layers. Specifically, the Kindle software (open due to the apps) and the Nook hardware (proprietary due to the DRM and on-board bookstore, which improves usability).

  4. Pogue’s article is, unusually for him, poorly written and decidedly inaccurate.

    Firstly Both Microsoft and Apple were implementing proprietary software, not open source software.
    Secondly there is one reason and one reason only that Microsoft were victorious in the beginnings of the birth of the PC ca 1980. It was their deal with IBM to put MSDOS on every single IBM PC. Through this deal MSDOS and then Windows were assured pre-instalation on every PC and more importantly every business PC. By the time Apple arrived and entered the market the market was tied up and the competition finished. Pogue’s statement about whether Apple and MS were open or proprietary is irrelevant.
    Thirdly Plays ForSure was a logo certification program and not in any way comparable with Apple’s iPod. Microsoft had no device and no real system,. Pogue’s comments are yet again way off the mark and his use of terminology is confused and inaccurate.

    In the present battle of the smart phones his terminology becomes slightly more relevant. However while he correctly states some of the advantages and disadvantages of Android and iOS he omits to point out the emerging security nightmare that is developing with Android which is so open and loosely controlled that apps are not being examined for malware and personal security in any meaningful way and already dozens of android apps have had to be removed after being exposed for accessing users personal details including bank and credit card details. The iOS is certainly more restrictive and closed in broad terms. But that brings reliability, coherency, version homogeneity and, more than anything, Security.

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