“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?