Do businesses gain an advantage by adopting open standards?
Jonathan Zittrain is a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources for the Harvard Law School Library, and Co-Founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Previously, he was the Chair in Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University and a principal of the Oxford Internet Institute. He was also a visiting professor at the New York University School of Law and Stanford Law School.
Zittrain’s research interests include battles for control of digital property and content, cryptography, electronic privacy, the roles of intermediaries within Internet architecture, and the useful and unobtrusive deployment of technology in education.
He is also the author of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, as well as co-editor of the books, Access Denied (MIT Press, 2008), Access Controlled (MIT Press, 2010), and Access Contested (MIT Press, 2011).
Question: Do businesses gain an advantage by adopting open standards?
Jonathan Zittrain: I think there are plenty of reasons for businesses to produce and embrace generative technologies. Bill Gates did. I mean, the famously proprietary Bill Gates, Microsoft developed the Windows operating systems. Now they may be proprietary in the sense that you can't see the code and change the code. You can entirely reprogram the way a Windows box works. It's truly just limited by imagination. Same is true with Mac. Same is true with Gnu Linux. Bill Gates was not doing that out of charity. He saw advantage to selling a platform that third parties could write software on, and he wouldn't be serving a gatekeeping role. If somebody wants to run Netscape on their machine-- he tried to load the dice a little bit, and got himself in big antitrust trouble for doing it. But even there, it was like, what appears on the desktop when you take the computer out of the box. It wasn't like he was trying to kill Netscape, as you were wanting to load it onto your machine. Therefore there are reasons for businesses to want to be generative. But once they are the king of the hill, and everybody's using their platform, you can see them wanting to selectively cut back on it, like wanting to kill Netscape, because you've got your own browser, Internet Explorer, that you want to favor. Or, having an application that you believe diminishes the value of your brand and you want to kill it. Or a regulator comes up to you and says, "Kill that application." The Windows box didn't allow that, as no operating system really did. Today, with web applications and other, what I call, contingently generative technologies, third parties can code for them until they can't. It's much easier for a Steve Jobs to say, "Welcome to the iPhone apps store. If you're a software developer, you will develop it under my terms. You will put your application only through my store. You can't get it on iPhones any other way. That's how to reach the audience, through me. I take a cut if you're going to charge, and even if you don't, I'll take a cut of nothing. I reserve the right to kill your app at any moment if it suits me." And I don't want to trust that his business model will always be aligned with maximal openness to applications.
Recorded on: 3/8/08
Even the famously proprietary Bill Gates used generative technology, Zittrain says.
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