Openness – Necessary, Not Sufficient

In comments on my post on proprietary architectures being obsolete stevex pointed out that other hard-drive based MP3-supporting players (e.g. Archeon) predated iPod and didn’t do nearly as well. Being “more open” clearly wasn’t sufficient for Apple’s competitors. But my claim isn’t that differentiated openness drove iPod’s success, only that openness was a necessary element of the successful solution. Apple is still by no stretch of the imagination the first company one might free-associate with “standards-based open architecture”. But I believe it is clear that today’s Apple (Unix, TCP/IP, USB, VGA, Intel) is not the Apple of old (MacOS, Newton, AppleTalk, idiosynchratic hardware & peripherals).
I share stevex’s perspective that critical success factors for iPod included great industrial design, brand/marketing, and the integrated user experience of the iTunes/iPod combination. The point really is that had Apple in 2001 behaved like the Apple of 1991 they would have built around a proprietary audio format and specialized mass storage, and all the above success factors wouldn’t have made iPod a hit. Steve & team clearly get the need for appropriately building on open architectures in order to innovate elsewhere. I even see signs that Sony, like Apple well-known for favoring proprietary architectures, is changing its spots. More on Sony in a future post.
At the end of the day all the openness in the world won’t make a hit product. For that matter, nor will focusing on incremental price/feature wars in an existing market space. Apple largely ignored existing entrants like Archeon to create and capture new demand with iPod. I believe Apple’s determined Blue Oceans mindset is ultimately their core strength.