Scientific American Feb 2011 coverDavid Pogue, in an article in Scientific American looks at comparisons between open source and proprietary technology over the years, trying to determine which is better.  It doesn’t actually include ebook devices in its examination, but it easily could have.

As it is, it compares the Apple vs Microsoft early days, the early music player days (again, mostly Apple vs Microsoft), and now the phone wars (in the article’s take, primarily an iPhone vs Google war).

The article, however, fails to identify a clear winner: It describes wins on both fronts over the years, and leaves the present phone war up in the air.  (This must be why everyone tells me I should be reading Science instead.)

I think if Pogue had looked closer, he would have clearly seen that, at least in his examples, “open vs proprietary” wasn’t nearly as important as the real key in those fights: Consumer choice.  In each case cited, it was consumers’ desires for the technology that did what they wanted, in the best way, that decided the matter… to wit:

  • Apple vs Microsoft: Microsoft won by providing, through licensing with many vendors and an open architecture, lower prices, more choices, and more ways to customize hardware and software;
  • iPod vs MS PlaysForSure (never heard of it?  Neither had I): iPod, by providing a more stylish and seamless music experience that even survived the DRM atmosphere;
  • iPhone vs Google: Still undecided, but ease of use may be leaning in Google’s direction.

We can look at ebook hardware the same way; at this stage, it is primarily an Amazon vs Everybody Else battle.  In this case, Amazon could be seen to be the proprietary platform (having bought an open platform and turning it into a proprietary one), and the other hardware makers, adopting to ePub as they are, can be seen as more open (especially those running Android systems).  No, it’s not a direct correlation, but it’s close enough for comparison purposes.

Again, proprietary vs open isn’t nearly as important as consumer experience… which is why the proprietary Kindle store is still on top with most ebook users in the U.S., with its easy-to-use store and multiple-platform reading apps.  Even Apple’s proprietary platform has shown incredible popularity, outstripping all industry performance estimations, and primarily due to ease-of-use, which is why it may be more of a direct competitor on its own against Android and the Kindle at present.  But as other hardware vendors improve their products, make more Android hardware and apps available, and help to consolidate the rest of the market through sharing of the ePub standard, Kindle’s dominance could dwindle over time.

Bottom line: The future won’t be predicted by the most money spent, the coolest covers, or the most celebrities behind the product.  We, the people, will decide which is best for us, and that’s the platform that will do the best in the market.