Walled Gardens are Permeable

There is an incredible amount of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) on the internet about walled gardens, or closed ecosystems, especially focussed on Apple and ignoring everyone else. The open versus closed ecosystem holy war is in full force, with a lot of words written in absolute and extreme terms. Yet the so-called walled garden systems appear to be most popular and most successful.

I believe that in reality these closed ecosystems actually have very permeable walls and that we’re really working in the middle ground between open and closed. They both have benefits and problems, but the balance is achievable and, in some cases, already working. We can end this war of words with knowledge, understanding and in making our own choices.

After all, it’s much ado about nothing.

What is a Walled Garden

A walled garden is an analogy used to describe a closed ecosystem. Imagine a garden, completely surrounded by a wall, wherein you are sitting. The implication is that the plants, people, wildlife and layout of the garden is determined by the gardener and no other. If you are in this garden, you have no choice to but to see and use only what the gardener decides and provides.

In contrast, an open system is a garden left to nature, no wall, no gardener, wherein anyone can plant anything, any wildlife can exist, subject only to the laws of nature. Theoretically, you get to decide what plants go where as long as you accept that others have the same choice and powers as you, and are willing to live in natural chaos.

The walled garden analogy falls apart when you try to look at how the plants, you and the gardener actually get in to this walled garden, and how an ecosystem can survive without outside air and services. And the open analogy falls apart when you consider that deserts and ice-caps and turf-wars are natural too.

In reality, walled garden systems have gates, where ingress and egress is controlled and managed, and open systems have less material but just as valid barriers of their own. They are not absolutes.

Almost every technology platform you interact with these days is actually a closed system is some way. Lets define these as systems where an exclusive set of services is provided for its users (Wikipedia. In which case, the following are walled gardens:

  • iOS, with it’s strictly enforced App Store and locked down hardware/software combination
  • Google, with its proprietary mail, contacts, documents, music, books and video (YouTube) services
  • RIMM, with its need to have a Blackberry server to control what goes on the device
  • Amazon, with its Kindle infrastructure, locking you into its books
  • Facebook, wherein you consume their services their way
  • Microsoft, with its new Metro App Store, XBox live network and new Phones

One could argue that all operating systems are really walled gardens as code written for one does not necessarily run on another, which means you are restricted in what you can run given what features are available.

In counterpoint to the walled gardens, there are a lot of systems promoted as open, such as

  • The Internet itself, with HTML5, CSS and Javascript, where anything goes
  • Linux and the open systems movement, wherein you can do whatever you like on a computer
  • Android, the open phone operating system

The reality is, though, that these systems are not as open as you think. There are barriers, they may not just be walls. The prevalence of bills to censor the internet and the frequency of ISP’s blocking or throttling services make the internet a little more closed. The barrier to Linux is that you need to be a programmer to get anything done outside the walled gardens of the distributions. And Android is getting hemmed in by locked bootloaders, patents, fragmentation and carrier required crapware.

Benefits of the Walled Garden

So what is so good about closed ecosystems? Why are walled gardens with their managed gates better?

For one thing, there are fewer, if any, viruses, malware, trojan horses and secret key-logging systems in walled garden platforms (or none yet on the tougher ones like iOS). Whereas most people live in fear in the more open systems of getting hijacked and spend fortunes on protective tools that really don’t work, people in walled gardens feel safer.

Since the walls and gates exists, walled garden systems are inherently more secure. The walls keep unwanted stuff out, the gates control access, and the closed nature of the platform makes it harder to hack. Security by obscurity seems to work in their favor.

Closed systems are more deterministic, which means they experience far fewer crashes than open systems operating in a dynamic environments. The hardware is known, the bios is known, the chipset is known, the screen is known and a single vendor does it all. They can be built to higher tolerances, tested better and to a much higher quality standard.

The maker of the closed system controls the experience, which, theoretically keeps the crapware out. The carrier, retailer, or other third parties don’t get to install their own stuff in walled garden systems, leading to a better user experience.

New software, software updates and bug fixes are guaranteed to work, because the walled garden curator has tested and made it so. Users can be comfortable that these installs and updates will work as advertised and not brick their systems.

Walled garden systems are easier to use and learn because you don’t need special skills to get in. They are targeted at regular people. They are made into comfortable and safe environments, where the limits are known and it’s easy to see and understand what is going on.

And walled gardens are a business and businesses exist to grow and make money. Walled garden systems are profitable, popular and create jobs. Profitable walled garden systems are a better long term investment as you know they’ll be around and supported in the future.

Why Walled Gardens are Bad

But walled garden systems are not all benefits and no costs. Here are some.

Walled gardens limit functionality, there are things you just cannot do in closed systems. In more open systems, you can, if you have the skills, change the system to provide the functionality you need. You cannot change closed systems.

Walled gardens also limit access to services and features that are valuable to those both inside and outside the walled garden. An example would be iCloud or Notification Center on Apple platforms, only available to App Store apps, and not available otherwise.

The decision on what you can and cannot do, can or cannot access, is not yours, it’s the closed system maker’s decision. If you don’t agree, tough. If there are things you want to do, and think it’s OK to do, but the maker disagrees, tough.

And the rules that define what is acceptable and not in a walled garden are subject to change. Makers can unilaterally change their rules at any time, and take away functionality or access you used to have. Which leads to uncertainty.

And then there is platform lock-in. If you buy all your books at Amazon on Kindle, you cannot transfer them to other services. If you spend a lot of money on iOS apps, you’re less likely to change platforms. I concede that with content, this is starting to change with the removal of DRM on iTunes music.

And then there is the legal system. DCMA and patents are being used to make circumvention of these walls illegal, whereas in open systems, such circumvention is encouraged to grow and innovate.

Fallacies spread about Walled Gardens

As with all things, there are a lot of fallacies being spread that confuse the issue, such as:

It’s a fallacy that there is no way in or out of a walled garden. Of course there is. Almost all walled garden systems have interfaces or APIs to enable upload and download of data (except Twitter!). People have successfully migrated from Windows to OS X, from iOS to Android. It may not be easy, that’s on purpose, but it is doable.

There is a common refrain that walled gardens create consumers instead of creators. Very often this is applied to the iPad. It’s bullshit. Look at the number of writing and drawing tools on the platform, look at the New Yorker covers created and tell me you cannot create content in the iOS walled garden.

Another argument is that walled gardens are a threat to the open web and openness in general. I have yet to have the open web defined satisfactorily, so I shall assume the open web is the internet accessible from a web browser. Name one walled garden system that cannot be circumvented by opening a web browser.

And then there is the argument that walled gardens stifle innovation. Really? iOS, the poster child of walled gardens, is the most innovative operating system in decades. Twitter and Facebook, both severely walled gardens, are the most innovative things to happen in human social interaction ever!

And finally the argument that walled gardens are a new thing, that we never had them before. Hoo boy. The original telephone networks did not interconnect, walled gardens, cable TV decides what channels you can get, walled garden, newspapers decided what stories you get to read, walled garden, the postal service before Fedex and UPS, walled garden, online access with AOL and CompuServe before the Internet, walled garden. Heck, the US private healthcare system is a walled garden, others decide what care you can and cannot get. Your motor car is a walled garden, I cannot put the BMW 3-liter diesel engine in a Nissan GTR body if I wanted to.

My Take

The argument over walled gardens is presented as one between choice and safety, between freedom and central control, between good and evil, but really it’s one about capability and trust.

Is the average person capable of surviving in the chaos and risk of the open systems world, or can they trust the curators of the walled gardens? Are they capable of changing their systems to meet their needs, and who should they trust if incapable?

The answer is simple.

If you can program and understand technology and can fix issues and can deal with malware and know what you want, open is surely better for you. You can apply your capabilities to do what you want, and be productive with open systems. To us geeks, walled gardens are restrictive, so we call them evil.

But most folks cannot program or fix issues or understand technology. Walled gardens provide a safe, comfortable environment in which they can be just as productive as us geeks. They can write or compose or draw or browse without worrying about or understanding their systems. Just like we drive without understanding how internal combustion engines work. Not only do walled gardens work for them, just look around you, they work very well. Look at the popularity and profitability of walled garden systems like iOS and Facebook and Kindle. To regular people, walled gardens are safe and good.

The thing is, even if you do use a walled garden system, you really are not limited by the walls anyway. The walls are permeable. Open a web browser and the walls cease to exist. And so does this war.

Posted By Hilton Lipschitz · Oct 15, 2012 12:36 PM