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Why “open always wins” isn’t the point

I’ve disagreed not infrequently with John Gruber over the last few years, particularly over his constant reflexive, largely evidence-free position that “native is always best” or “web based applications are always inferior”.

Gruber is of course confident in the correctness of his position and so the articles he links to invariably back up his position—confirmation bias for his like-minded audience [1]. For example I’d have only given you very short odds on this piece of Drew Crawford’s on mobile JavaScript performance (tldr, mobile JavaScript is fundamentally bad and never going to get any better) showing up in short order at Daring Fireball, and lo it did. And for bonus points with this lovely piece of ad hominem sarcasm from Gruber “denial runs strong among the web app true believers”. A bit like being a sarcastic, low information wanker runs strong in Gruber. It’s sadly become his schtick. Of course, he didn’t link to detailed contrary positions by people who, you know, actually build JavaScript engines, demonstrating once again Gruber has no interest in understanding – he already understands – he’s interested in advancing the position he already believes (sorry, understands).

However, when it comes to Gruber’s sarcasm, “web app true believers” pale into insignificance compared with Google, and in particular, the concept of Google’s openness. Time and again, when Google does something that makes them easy targets for Gruber’s criticism, he’ll add his signature sarcastic retort “open always wins”. Sometimes that’s literally the sum total of his contribution to the matter. His real target though is not really Google, it’s those poor benighted fools who’d believe such a thing.

Of course, Gruber’s argument (to dignify it with that term) is fundamentally flawed. It goes like this

1. Everything Google does is open (either because Gruber believes this a priori, or because Google says so or someone somewhere believes this or something)
2. But Google, the exemplar of Openness (see what I did there) did something bad
3. Ergo (this is a fancy grown up word for therefor) anyone who believes openness always wins is a poor deluded fool, who has been duped into boosting Google, so nyah

So basically, it’s really not an argument at all. It’s a kind of name calling. And in people with a lot of reach and influence [2], name calling starts looking like a kind of bullying. Not, as I mentioned, of Google, but of those poor folks who have been duped by the likes of Google into believing in openness. Luckily when one grows up, bullies start looking like the rather pathetic folks they generally are.

The thing is, those I know who advocate for openness—of data, of platforms, of technologies—do so not on the basis that it always wins (there’s more to life than being on a winning team, where for “being on” read “barracking for”), but because they believe ethically, systemically, that openness is better. It’s a belief that better outcomes occur when systems, data, technologies are open.

And these folks are typically not simply cheerleaders for team open. They contribute code, work on standards, and help others learn in a myriad of ways, rarely particularly materially benefitting from their contributions. They walk the talk.

But believing that openness leads to better outcomes overall doesn’t mean believing that open systems will always beat closed systems. These issues are, to use a grown up word, orthogonal.

Then again, it is rather interesting that almost all modern platforms are built on top of or heavily leverage open technologies like UNIX, webkit, XML (the list could quickly become very long). Or that the platforms that least leverage open source technology are increasingly struggling to keep up with those which do. And that’s not even to begin going down the rabbit hole of just how much the entire modern computing ecosystem is essentially completely dependent on TCP/IP, HTTP, LAMP (Oh look! Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP. What do you know, all open), RESTful architectures (yes, even those awesome native apps built with Objective-C and CocoaTouch like Twitter and Facebook clients only make sense on top of all those open technologies).

So, next time you want to bash Google, be my guest. I’m pretty sure they won’t “go pee pee in their big boys slacks”. But don’t beat up on the concept of openness, as if those who champion the latter, necessarily support the former uncritically (if at all). Rather, you really should be getting down on your knees and giving thanks for openness, as we all should. Those of us who have been around the block a few times know how much the extraordinary modern world of the technology, and so all of us, owe to it.

[1] I will just note in passing that Gruber’s entire business is a web site, no native Daring Fireball app in sight. Hmmm.

[2] And a not insignificant following of people who, as I found out to my bemusement a while back when I critiqued one of Gruber’s pieces only to have a swarm of people disagree with me who clearly hadn’t read what I’d written except enough to find a hook to restate Gruber’s position as if were a priori true

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I’ve been admiring the Web Directions events for years, and was honored to be part… What a fantastic event!

Ethan Marcotte Inventor of 'Responsive Web Design'