Open

Added on by Bryan.

We often hear the term “open” in regards to open-source software, but today I read an amazing definition that I hadn’t considered before:

If we want to define how “open” any industry is, we should start with a number: the cost of entry. By this we simply mean the monetary cost of getting into the business with a reasonable shot at reaching customers. Is it in the neighborhood of $100? $10,000? Or more like $1 billion? Whatever the magnitude, that number, most definitively, is what determines whether an industry is open or closed.

-Tim Wu, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

This definition of “open” strikes me as a more complete definition. If it’s all about the cost of entry, it encompasses the open-source argument, but it brings with it some added implications.

By Wu’s definition, the barriers of entry to reaching customers are what determine openness. By this definition, I’d argue that Apple’s iOS development community is more open than Android’s: the barriers to getting a good product into the hands of paying customers are far fewer. Yes, the iOS developer program costs $100, but look at what that affords you: access to a massive and growing collection of customers who are far more likely to pay you for your product, and instead of wrestling with device fragmentation, you only have to develop for two screen sizes.

Wu’s “open” has implications for other industries:

  • We talk about whether our political process is transparent —-look at the high net worth of our politicians, and it’s clear that there are financial requirements for getting your voice heard in this country.
  • We talk about the importance of education in our society, but when tuition prices skyrocket, our society becomes less of a free and open community. If you graduate and are burdened by debt, you are less likely to pursue your dreams, and more likely to work for the highest (or only) bidder.
  • The recent battles over patents show that if the cost of defending yourself is too high, then the patent system truly isn’t open to small innovators.
  • Sometimes, we want communities to be closed. Doctors, for example, should have to struggle to become doctors, or else we couldn’t be sure of the quality of their work. (I personally think that medical school should be inexpensive yet challenging, but let’s save that for another post.)
  • The declining costs of getting your message out to the world is what’s driving the free and open exchange of ideas on blogging platforms like Wordpress, Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook. Folks who used to read the newspaper can now participate in the discussion, and the old media empires can’t keep up with this new, open world.

PS: This book has been incredible so far. I found it through Seth Godin, and it is full of annotations on my Kindle. So good!