THE FAILURE OF THE OPEN FIELD

Microsoft has a reputation as a monopolist but built its dominance by opening the Windows world to partners – thousands and thousands of partners. Microsoft controlled the underlying environment and reserved some highly profitable parts for itself, but the world is a PC world because you can buy computers and printers and software from untold numbers of independent companies, big and small. When Microsoft launches a product or a platform, it is always surrounded on a stage at some convention center by dozens of companies.

In many ways, the result is a mess. By itself, Windows is stable and secure. All too often that is obscured by our unhappy experiences dealing with non-standard installations of buggy software, by devices that don’t work or are badly designed, or by unrelated crapware included as baggage with something else because one company did a bundling deal with another company for its own benefit and with no consideration for our experience.

Apple has always tightly controlled its world, even as it built a reputation as the choice of creative “free spirits” – a neat trick. Apple controls its hardware and software far more closely than Microsoft controls the PC world; that narrows the Apple world but arguably makes it a less chaotic place for consumers. Here’s a thought-provoking blog entry that gives Apple credit for making that paradox work, unleashing developers by creating a controlled environment that delivers their products in a satisfying way.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in the world of mobile devices today. Microsoft’s phone software, Windows Mobile, has been developed for years but looks stodgy and never feels more than adequate. Thousands of third party developers have created programs for Windows Mobile but they’re difficult to find and annoying to install. Microsoft also gave the phone manufacturers the freedom to make changes to Windows Mobile, both cosmetic and deep, and the results have been dreadful.

Apple’s iPhone is not perfect by any means but it is seductive and lovely. With the iPhone Apps store, Apple is doing what Microsoft failed to do for years – Apple has created a platform that has encouraged a burst of creativity by designers and programmers, and has given iPhone users an easy way to find new things to do with their devices without breaking them. We’re at a very early point in that process and most of the apps are fun and useless right now, but I’m starting to sense the power of a brand new platform that is capable of very different things than any device that has ever existed before. It makes the future look more interesting.

David Pogue wrote a column in the New York Times that singled out just one of the iPhone apps. Ocarina is a simple program that turns your iPhone into a kind of flute. Finger holes appear on the screen; you hold the phone sideways and blow into the microphone hole and flute sounds come out of the speaker. Tilting the phone up and down controls the vibrato.

Accomplishing that puts the touch screen, microphone, speaker, graphics and tilt sensor to use in a seamless way. There’s a little globe onscreen, too – click on it and the screen changes to a map of the world and you start hearing someone playing Ocarina somewhere in the world at that very moment, with their location displayed on the map. It’s a straightforward and completely natural way to leverage the phone’s Internet connection and GPS capability.

That is remarkable! I can’t get it out of my head. I’m not musical and I don’t want to hear somebody play their phone. Instead, I want to see what the next developer can do that nobody else has thought of, and the next one, and the one after that. Wired Magazine has an article by someone who tried to see what came to mind if he focused obsessively on what it means to have GPS readily available, from games to impromptu meetings to exercise to dining out. There’s a generation growing up that finds these tools natural and already lives in a different world than you or I do.

Microsoft’s openness to business partners to develop and extend Microsoft products and platforms has brought us a long way. We could use a little more control by Microsoft to rein them in and make it more likely that they will satisfy us and enrich our lives instead of frustrate us.