John Markoff of the New

John Markoff of the New York Times: “Microsoft also warned today that the era of ‘open computing,’ the free exchange of digital information that has defined the personal computer industry, is ending.”

Microsoft people hate the word “open.” And they have a point. Like motherhood, apple pie and homeland security, openness is hard to oppose. However, it’s vague and easily turned to the service of various political agendas. Is Windows a closed platform? It depends if you’re comparing it with a Linux box or your VCR. Is Java more open than Windows? Not when it comes to source code being freely modifiable. Is the most open solution always best for end-users? Maybe as a matter of principle, but there’s sometimes a tradeoff between the user-centric ideal and what will give companies a financial incentive to actually build something so that users can enjoy it.

Microsoft has finally found a good argument for closed systems, just as public intellectuals such as Larry Lessig have made headway convincing people that openness should be a central value in public policy and legal issues connected to technology. There’s no conspiracy here, and Microsoft may actually be right that Trusted Computing (which their Palladium initiative is an example of) would be a good thing.

Open vs. closed is too simple a framework to get at the real issues. I say this as an early advocate of “open” access to cable broadband platforms, and of “open” spectrum. If we’re looking for ways to advocate policies, openness is a useful concept. But if we’re trying to figure out how the technology industry should be structured to maximize social welfare, innovation and other benefits, we need a new vocabulary of discourse.