New Handhelds: Open vs. Proprietary

At this year’s MacWorld, Apple didn’t announce any new computer products — unless you count the iPhone. In fact, Apple has delayed the release of its latest OS update, “Leopard”, until October in order to devote resources to the iPhone. It’s more than a phone — it’s a general-purpose handheld computer. To my eyes, the phone function is a bonus.

As usual, Apple is ahead of the curve. Yesterday, Intel announced its partnership with several other hardware manufacturers to produce a $500 handheld. It will run Linux as well as Windows Vista, which actually makes it a more open platform than the iPhone, for which Apple has announced no plans to release the API.

Since the market failure of the Apple Newton, we’ve been stuck in a world of low-powered, non-standard-OS-running, clunky-interface PDAs. With the huge popularity of “smart phones”, there’s a new willingness to pursue the handheld format. Display technology has also come a long way. And I, for one, have been literally waiting since the Newton.

A few years ago, Duke U. gave out iPods to its entire freshman class. For this year’s freshmen, that’s probably redundant since iPods are more popular than beer. All kidding aside, as popular as laptops are, they don’t get carried everywhere. Cellphones do, but they are locked down and designed so as not to function as general-purpose computers. Handhelds offer extreme integration of computers into daily experience.

College campuses will be the laboratories of this new technology’s cultural impact. We’re not committed to productivity per se; college students will find the fun uses — as well as the innovative workflows that those “on the clock” wouldn’t think to try. One lesson of Web 2.0 is that you don’t design a social environment — you give everyone access and if the product is cool, some of the thousands or millions of users will contribute to it, leverage it, improve it, and turn it into something great.

Of course, you don’t want to compromise the original functionality by allowing remixes. The question of how open to be is very much live right now. See MySpace vs. embedded media widgets, or Alexa vs. Alexaholic. As Wired’s Eliot Van Buskirk says in the MySpace article,

Its closest competitor, Facebook, has unannounced (but confirmed) plans to open its site to third-party widgets for the first time. Ultimately, the two sites could come to resemble each other, but which will users prefer? Surely, the one that’s more open and transparent. That approach has prevailed over and over on the web.

Will the public continue to vote with their clicks for the open web model? Probably. Will software and hardware makers draw that analogy to their products? Eventually. I believe that, barring anti-competitive manipulation (e.g. misuse of copyright and patent law), the open model will prevail. But man, the iPhone looks cool…

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