Why I Prefer Closed to Open

Art. Beauty. Delight.

…That’s the answer. To the question.

The greatest creative expressions are the direct result of an individual’s inspiration, vision and guidance.

It may take a mammoth team to execute on that vision. But the best work starts with an idea, a visionary seed, one that must be defended and guided through a myriad of decisions a project meets along its growth.

I often think of creative ideas like trees in a forest. In a forest, the trees that stand out, those that get your attention, that make you stop and marvel, those are the trees that are unusual in some way. The ones that defy the average vertical pattern. The tree that is bent and twisted against the norm. A tree that quite literally goes out on a limb. This tree is not average. To some, this tree may seem awkward, or ugly. To others it is unquestionably the – one – beautiful stand out.

At this point some feel compelled to point out that the forest – made up of my average trees – is itself a thing of beauty. And indeed that is true – but taken at that scale, the forest then is the unique, unusual object against a larger experiential backdrop.

Either way, our tree is its own. It is unique.

Such uniqueness is only possible because it was subjected to a one-of-a-kind force or condition that the other trees were not.

If however, you averaged the shape of all the trees in the forest, the unique beauty of this one unusual tree would be lost. Averaged out.

In development of creative ideas, void of an individual’s guided vision, the more voices, the more inspirations, the more filters, doubts and preferences that collide and direct, the less distinct the eventual expression becomes. A variety of inspirations naturally cause a canceling effect. An averaging of the distinct, unique exceptions. They pull the limb closer to the middle, closer to an average.

It’s a simple truth.

And this is how I think of closed Vs open.

It’s why artists tend to prefer a closed condition. It allows for authorship – for an individual’s vision. For expression of (potentially) a truly unusual, unique idea. One that goes out on a limb. One-of-a-kind.

There are often many flaws and possible pitfalls in the structure of closed projects. Being non-standard, they are more often prone to systemic deformities and challenges. But this is why the whole process, the whole team must be working in agreement to support the originating vision. Because more technical rigor is required to overcome this natural weakness – to ensure the integrity of the unique structure. While each member of the team has a role that will impact the project, still above all directives is the one that defends the vision.

This is not to say that Closed is naturally superior. Open has its own benefits. An open project naturally resists many of the risks of systemic deformity. In fact it excels at evading deformity. It more easily reveals and repairs structural flaws and more readily results in a functional system. But what it more easily gains in structural integrity, it gives up in uniqueness, in surprise, in drama, creative integrity, and delight. It is merely a tree – out on no limb. Standard, functional, and utilitarian.

And it’s why so many of the engineers I know prefer an open environment. Not all, but most.  It is sensible if your aim is above all to ensure technical integrity.

I don’t mean to split artists and engineers, that’s a generality and not entirely fair. I’ve known rare exceptions on both sides.

But to me, all this does ring true when I reflect on debates and sensibilities surrounding iOS and Android.

When I use each system I can see the difference in the originating process and sensibility.

My experience with Android is one of utility and functionality. It works. And for some that utilitarian functionality is plenty. It’s preferable even. These people look on the unusual bends and twists of iOS and they see flaws, a focus on gratuity that feels odd and unnecessary.

But an open system will never surprise you. It will function rationally, but it will not surprise and delight.

And to me – my heart drops when I use Android. It works, yes. I get from point A to point B. But (heavy sigh) I don’t enjoy it. There is no joy.  Perhaps acknowledgement of this is part of the reason Google has been taking a more “closed” approach to parts of Android.

Users of iOS, and all other Apple products, I think generally appreciate the ongoing lengths Apple has gone to engineer and fortify its twists. The obsessive attention to detail that make Apple products surprising, delightful and unique.  Apple is the very product of going out on a limb.

Creativity requires a vision.  A great movie, a pointed work of art, a gripping book, a great design, a delightful OS experience, all require a vision.  And these further require strong direction and leadership – on whatever scale may be relevant.  There are easier ways to create – but none that result in strongly differentiated creativity.  Great creative expressions are not originated by communities. Executed, perhaps, but not originated and directed.

And for this reason I assert, with exceedingly rare exception, outstanding creative expression is the result of a closed model.  And it’s why I prefer the closed model myself.