Technology has the potential to empower people to be creators and imaginers. But, choice is necessary to make this a reality. To be able to choose the best tool for the job, users need to be able to move freely between platforms. In recent years, our choices have slowly been eroded. Technology companies are building walled gardens that prevent choice and disincentivize innovation.
I would argue that the proprietary technology vs open standards narrative has threads throughout technology history. Think back to all the video game consoles you owned as a kid. Games were rarely backwards compatible. Remember when Mac and Windows couldn’t talk to each other? For twenty years we’ve had the Internet and it’s made us forget. The Internet is something all modern devices connect to seamlessly. We can all communicate with each other regardless of the hardware we use. But, our lives are more complicated now. No longer do we have the “family computer” that everyone shares. Everybody has multiple devices - phones, laptops, tablets, etc - And, it’s imperative that our devices have the ability to connect to common accessories.
2016 brought platform lock-in, once again, to the attention of the masses when Apple made the controversial decision to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone 7. To this day, the headphone jack (or lack thereof) is a sore point on Reddit discussions and forums.
The big technology companies are slowly removing hardware interfaces that allow us flexibility and choice, and they are replacing them with proprietary alternatives that lock us into their hardware platforms. Those hardware platforms are also closely tied to software - including operating systems, voice assistants, and cloud services. It’s a business strategy Apple is famous for, but now its competitors have adopted it too.
In fact, there are so many examples of platform lock-in that I will list some recent examples and spare you the explanation.
- Replacing the headphone jack in smartphones and releasing proprietary headphones that head platform specific features. Examples: Apple AirPods and Google Pixel Buds.
- Digital assistants speakers such as Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Apple’s forthcoming HomePod. Each has its own set of skills and none support all music streaming services or home automation platforms.
- Non-interoperable messaging platforms like iMessage, Facebook, Google’s many (messy) services, etc.
Why do the above examples matter? It matters because if this trend continues, it will be increasingly difficult for users to switch platforms without buying new accompanying hardware or transitioning their data to new software services.
Now, back to the headphone jack. It’s the best example of this hardware lock-in because it’s a technology that everyone understands. The fallout of the headphone jack’s demise is best summarized by Nilay Patel, Editor-in-Chief, of The Verge (Vergecase Podcastat 29:02 min).
In fact, Nilay has discussed many of the same points and I recommend you read his article on Bluetooth headphones.
When Apple removed the headphone jack, the company justified it by arguing that we’re moving toward a wireless future.
Apple conveniently launched the iPhone 7 alongside the AirPod wireless headphones which were touted as an example of how great wireless could be. And, while they’re solid headphones, they don’t completely rely on a universal wireless standard like Bluetooth. One of the common criticisms of Bluetooth headphones is their inferior audio quality compared to their wired counterparts. To justify the removal of the headphone jack, and charging $159 US for wireless earbuds, Apple had to deliver a superior user experience. Its custom hardware chip, called the W1, works in conjunction with Bluetooth to improve the connection and allow for more seamless phone pairing and device switching.
This year, Google followed Apple’s lead by removing the headphone jack from its flagship Pixel phones and introduced (you guessed it) special wireless earbuds. The Pixel Buds, like Apple’s AirPods, use proprietary technology to more easily pair to certain Android phones (for Android versions N and above).
Now, it’s unlikely that universal wireless standards like Bluetooth, or physical connectors like the 3.5mm headphone jack, will disappear completely. But, when the largest and most dominant platforms have proprietary headphone offerings it fragments the industry. Hardware makers will feel pressured to adopt these proprietary technologies to take advantage of platform features or fever languish in mediocrity. Bose has built-in Google’s proprietary voice assistant into its latest wireless headphones. Features like this disappear when you leave the Android platform - giving users an incentive to not buy a competing phone.
Perhaps a less obvious implication is that proprietary technologies like Apple’s W1 chip are built upon existing open standards. In this scenario, both the universal standard and proprietary technology need to exist. This might not have an economic impact, but it feels like corporations are enjoying a free ride. It’s like installing a pop-up book store in a public library. Tech companies pretend to support common standards by enabling the most basic functionality of a device across platforms. But, the best features are reserved for that company’s platform.
More recently, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus now support wireless charging. Apple (perhaps due to recent criticism) was quick to acknowledge that it adopted the Qi charging standard. However, it also previewed its AirPower technology - a proprietary feature built upon the Qi standard which allows multiple devices to be charged simultaneously on the same wireless charging pad. Once again, all the notable features are proprietary. Apple has said it plans to work with Qi to improve the standard for everyone, but they also promised FaceTime would become an open video standard and that never happened.
Can we blame these companies?
Now that I’ve complained thoroughly about platform lock-in, it’s important to see this from the other side. Many of the universal hardware and software standards that exist don’t provide the best user experience. Private companies want to make money. Can we blame them for not adopting lacklustre technologies, just to make the world more interoperable?
I’ve discussed Bluetooth already, so let’s move onto USB Type C (commonly referred to as USB C). This hardware standard promises charging, data transfer, audio out, and video out all through one port. It sounds wonderful, but unfortunately USB C hasn’t been implemented consistently. A device with a USB C port may not utilize all its potential. A laptop with USB C may not charge, for instance, but it will do data transfer and video output.
The problem with standards is that they’re not really standards at all. They are ideals that only come to fruition when companies invoke the good will to support them. In this respect, it’s not surprising that many companies avoid some standards all together. Why adopt standards that make it difficult for users to leave your platform? Where is the motivation to collaborate?
Standards are important because without them we'd be living in silos. We would only be able to communicate with people inside certain circles.
Just take a look at some of the standards we rely on.
- Wireless Power Consortium
- Consortium Info (list of many standards)
- Instant Messaging protocols
- Media codecs (think music and videos)
These are standards any company can adopt. But, if we continue to allow technology companies to develop their own proprietary standards, they will continue to take away our ability to communicate with each other, use hardware accessories across platforms, and they will ultimately fragment the Internet. It’s up to users to vote with their wallets and lobby companies to implement technology standards that make our lives easier not more difficult.