“Integrated Proprietary Architectures”: Obsolete in IT?

Clayton Christensen has many Adobe fans, with good reason. He has truly pioneered in analyzing the underlying economic models that drive innovation. However Christensen is bent on establishing overarching general principles, which are necessarily to some level oversimplified in the context of a particular industry. In particular, I believe his model of a cyclical relationship between integrated, proprietary architectures and open modular architectures needs to be viewed in a larger context in the software sphere: these days, even the most closed and proprietary-seeming innovations are substantially built on open architectures. It’s even arguable that there’s no longer any major role in our Web-based ecosystem for integrated proprietary architectures.
Apple is an illustrative example. Christensen writes of the iPod that “Apple’s success illustrates how integrated, proprietary architectures allow companies to improve along dimensions that are not yet good enough to meet customers’ needs … when those dimensions become more than good enough … dis-integrated, modular architectures will thrive.”. This and other examples have led some to conclude that Apple’s “core competency” is innovating in early markets by being closed and proprietary.
Yet, the iPod’s success was clearly in large part driven by its adoption of two open modular architectures: the open MP3 format and commodity hard-drive technology. iPod took off because it gave people on-the-go access to all the music they had already RIP’d (and ripped-off). Even the vaunted tight connectivity between iTunes and iPod is built on the open USB standard. iPod/iTunes has only a small dose of proprietary architecture in its FairPlay DRM – everything else is essentially open and modular. In fact it’s arguable that Apple’s core competency of late has been its ability to integrate open standards in a user-centered manner with great “fit and finish”, with the minimum necessary proprietary secret sauce. OS/X as compared to Windows can be viewed as a veritable alphabet soup of open source and open standards. Including PDF, of course.
Another example is Dashboard widgets, widely viewed as one of the most prominent innovations in Tiger. Apple took some heat for exhibiting NIH by not just adopting Konfabulator yet Apple’s main innovation was a major move towards openness and standards: Dashboard widgets are, unlike Konfabulator’s proprietary markup, fundamentally just standard HTML.
My real point here is that, contrary to perception, Apple has (at least in recent years) not been egoful or tried to reinvent the wheel where standards already exist, enabling them to innovate elsewhere. I believe the key point here is that in today’s software industry leveraging standards and building solutions on open modular architectures is a fact of life. We can innovate most efficiently when we also keep in mind that most Innovation Happens Elsewhere.
Now this situation could be seen as just a moment in the cycle, and that things will roll around to proprietary architectures dominating in software again. I tend to think that it’s sticky. Once DNA-based life forms took off, evolution on that “open architecture” was so rapid that there was no room for alternative life forms to emerge. Similarly, I believe open source and open standards and the Web ecosystem are driving so much innovation (elsewhere) that they are here to stay as foundational building-blocks. What do you think?

5 Responses to “Integrated Proprietary Architectures”: Obsolete in IT?

  1. stevex says:

    Characterizing the iPod as ‘open’ is a bit off, I think.
    You mention that it supports USB, and of course it does, but not in a purely standard manner. With any other mp3 player, I can connect it and drag songs onto it (and off of it). The iPod requies that I synchronize with it through iTunes.
    The iPod wasn’t the first, wasn’t the most featureful, and wasn’t the cheapest.
    Perhaps maintaining the small amount of ‘proprietary secret sauce’ is part of it.. but it could also be simply good product and good marketing. They made a product that’s easy to use, meets the requirements of most users, looks nice, and they put a lot of marketing behind it. I think that’s the reason behind it’s success more than it’s openness.

  2. Ross says:

    stevex: not strictly true. You need to use iTunes to sync the iPod as the software on the iPod doesn’t show you music by recursing directories trees but by using a database (IMHO a good design choice). Thanks to Apple exposing the iPod as a standard USB Mass Storage device, I can use one of many programs on Linux to edit the database, which is just a file in a specified location on the hard drive.

  3. stevex says:

    A proprietary, undocumented file in a specified location on the hard drive.. The developers who created the Linux software did so by reverse engineering it, something that shouldn’t have been required.
    They also use a nonstandard USB connector (unlike my Canon PowerShot S2 IS, which gives me a standard mini USB connector).
    Anyway my point was that I don’t think openness is what made the iPod popular, and I don’t think it was even a significant contributing factor. There are players that have been on the market longer, are cheaper, have more features, are more open, and yet haven’t done nearly as well as the iPod.

  4. The days of proprietary architectures are coming to an end if they haven’t already. Look at XML. It will be interesting to see if Microsoft’s Vista goes the same open route Apple has with OS X, iPod, etc.
    They do have lots of smart people working there unfortunately being pushed by others entrenched in the wrong mindset, similar to the music industry.
    It’s encouraging to see Adobe going forward with things such as DNG and (previously unknown to me) PDF. It’s also good to see you opening the doors here!

  5. Bill mcDaniel says:

    The iPod IS a good example of innovating on open standards. The componetry is standard and open, the usb connector on my Shuffle is standard and I use it as a disk. The layer of design at which Apple chooses to implement proprietariness might be a discussion point, but every vendor will, at som elayer inthe architecture of a product decide to make its product proprietary…otherwise it may have no product.
    The innovation of the iPod is its style, its human factors, its appeal to the user…not its technology or software. But it would not have all that appeal if it were difficult to use because it used special connectors, special formats, and executed its proprietariness at an earlier level in the architecture. By making sure that most of its componets were standard, but by implemneting a proprietary style and use model, Apple scored a coup.
    The iPod battery issue is probably an example of a miscalculation of the point at which to depart from open standards … use of an off the sheldf, user replacable battery would have saved them a lot of PR heartburn.
    I think this is where Christensen does lose the story. Innovation within the guidelines of standards are possible and important. They leverage the existence of standards to make a product better for the user and for the manufacturer.