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Twilight of the open tech era

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Today's tech giants achieved success and scale by promoting their openness, but the industry's open doors are shutting, one by one.

Why it matters: Being "open" allowed tech innovators and companies to claim a sort of moral high ground. Without it, they are increasingly vulnerable to legal and regulatory restraint and popular disaffection.

The big picture: A 50-year arc toward open technology shaped today's industry.

  • Open platforms like the original personal computers sparked its early growth.
  • An open network, the internet, connected our devices and wove our digital world.
  • Open source software sat at the core of that world, making it run.
  • Open global trade knit together the businesses that emerged.

That arc looks to be ending, as a wave of change closes tech's open frontiers.

  • Today's dominant tech platforms are privately owned and governed, and their owners will readily adjust the "openness" dial to suit their needs — booting users perceived to be undesirable, blocking competitors, and locking down key data structures (like Facebook's "social graph") to prevent users from choosing alternatives.
  • Today's cloud-based software model pushes businesses and individuals away from the digital commons and toward closed, privately owned dataspaces. Those who still want to own their own digital real estate find that cybersecurity threats mean they can't realistically protect themselves.
  • Network access in the U.S. and most other countries is controlled by a small number of giant service providers, and the reversal of net neutrality rules means that they have a free hand to promote their own properties and stifle competitors.
  • The escalating trade war between the U.S. and China, which threatens to throttle growth in both countries, is splintering the global network economically, technically, and culturally, placing new barriers to international exchange.

Yes, but: Tech's open ideal brought its own set of problems, and many of these changes arose in response to them. Openness at global scale is difficult (and expensive) to keep safe. Plus, even today's more closed platforms have their own form of openness.

  • Facebook accounts are free and open to anyone — that means the company had to remove 2 billion fake accounts in the first quarter of 2019.
  • Anyone can sell software through Apple's app store — but Apple ends up reviewing 100,000 submissions a week for bugs, privacy concerns and content issues.
  • YouTube provides open video hosting — but critics say the recommendation algorithm that helps viewers find more to watch also pushes them toward ever more extreme perspectives.

Be smart: "Open" is in the eye of the beholder.

  • Google stores and mines a vast private hoard of data collected from open-web sources, but its search tools, maps and other information offerings are also "open" in that they're designed for easy integration with other internet services.
  • Facebook's critics see it as preempting or swallowing the open web, but Facebook's application is built on many open technical standards, the company has contributed lots of open source code, and many inside Facebook see their service as inheriting the web's "connect the world" mission.
  • Flashback: Microsoft was once seen as the "open" alternative to Apple because anyone who wanted to build a PC could use its operating system. Then it got tarred as a monopolist for the way it promoted its web browser. Originally, it championed high-priced proprietary software; today, it has made a broad shift toward the open-source model it once derided.

Our thought bubble: In a time of data spills, malicious hacks and privacy abuses, "open" can sound like a danger, not an ideal.

What's next: Technology trends have always swung pendulum-style between open and closed systems.

  • Emerging new tech, like blockchain-based systems, could form the basis of a new "open" wave.
  • But some argue that the dominance of machine-learning artificial intelligence, which needs to be trained on massive data stockpiles, means that competitors will increasingly keep their resources to themselves.