An Argument for Centralized Systems

Open systems have their good points and their bad.   Their weak governance makes it hard, or impossible, to move the installed base.   The communities around an open system are more likely to evaporate that reengineer.   They can only make slow evolutionary changes, so instead one by one they switch to revolutionary alternatives .

HTTP or JavaScript are fine examples of this.  Both, once adopted widely, it has taken Herculean efforts by very large players to shift the dial.  That only happened because the installed base was so locked in.

I’m reminded of this by an essay by Moxie Marlinspike.  It’s a fine example of how a blog let’s you give voice to the spirit of the stairwell.   Somebody provoked him.  And it appears to have taken him a while to pull together his response.  That guy said:

“that’s dumb, how far would the internet have gotten without interoperable protocols defined by 3rd parties?”

At first blush that seems pretty freaking obvious.  We have a boat load of stories we tell about why open protocols are potent.  Some examples.  Open systems help to commoditize things, enabling those that stand on them to thrive; i.e. they help limit the power of the platform vendor to tax all the air we breath.  Open systems solve a search problem, i.e. what is this good for; no platform vendor can possibly know the answer that question because only end users can comprehend their problems.

But yeah, I’ve a long have a list of these arguments/models about what open systems are about.  Moxie isn’t arguing that side of the question.  The Open Systems tribe tell stories and other tribes tell other stories.  Moxie is trying to tell one.


Moxie has few arguments in his essay.  For example he argues that the classic open protocol examples of Internet mythology all bloomed decades ago and have since resisted much, if any evolution.  SMTP for example.   That’s fair, and it’s not.   One counter-point to that argument is that these protocol evolved fast as the problem they solved was discovered and they are good enough.  The switching costs v.s. the benefits of switching became such that we can and in fact ought to bear those costs rather than switch that even a dictator wouldn’t bother.  My point isn’t to say that’s the case, only that it’s would be work to be sure one way or another.  Another counter point is that to say, no those protocols have not stagnated.  That we have layered on lots and lots of technology that extend and address new problems as they became apparent.  A glance as the number of headers in a typical email gives a glimpse of that for SMTP.  SMTP is still a damn good default choice if you need a robust distributed low latency messaging system.

Moxie argues that if you have an open protocol you are going to have a hell of a time getting the client side software to deliver a consistent experience to your installed base.  Well yeah. That’s why for decades Microsoft’s embrace and extend tactics make it so damn frustrating to use email.  And many argued, and often insisted, that the solution to that frustration was to that we should all just get on board the train to Seattle.   Google’s extensions clever use of IMAP and Jabber are more modern, though possible less conscious, examples of the same pattern.

But Moxies core argument, it seems to me, is that we haven’t the time.  That democratic (sic) open systems aren’t able to meet the expectations of the industry we are now in.

That deserves more thought.  It is certainly the case that they don’t meet the needs of the VC, product managers too.  The open system processes frustrate individual developers – the consensus building requires skills they despise; they’d rather be coding.  The whole enterprise smells like politics, because – well duh – all consensus build is.  For 90% of users they don’t care any more than 98% of your co-workers cared that Microsoft Exchanges is/was a closed system.  These issues are below their radar, below the facade of the “product” where they never go.  Making that case is like activating voters, again it’s politics.

To my eye Moxie’s essay is part and parcel of the swing back toward centralized computing.     Maybe it’s a pendulum, maybe it’s a one-way street.  Either way I suspect only 10-20% of the way along the way.

The personal computer was the primary artifact the tribe of decentralized computing gathered around.  We have a lot of stories that tell about why it’s awesome.  The new tribe, for whom AWS is the principal totem, will tell their own stories.  Moxie’s essay is an example.

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