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February 3, 2010

Open Architecture

Filed under: Main — Dan Gookin @ 12:01 am

One big difference between a computer and any other appliance is something called open architecture. It has nothing to do with great rooms, windows, or vaulted ceilings. It has everything to do with the success of the first crop of computers.

Open architecture is a lot like open source, but for hardware. When you have open architecture, you have a computer that anyone can hack, modify, or create new hardware for and expand the computer’s abilities. Such activities are even encouraged.

Two of the most successful early computers thrived on the open architecture concept: The Apple II and the IBM PC.

The Apple II was well-documented. You could design your own hardware, you could write your own software. There were even these things called peeks and pokes, software switches that you could mess with to modify the way the computer behaved.

The IBM PC was also well-documented. In fact, IBM sold a technical manual with the PC that listed the entire BIOS; every last byte of code in assembly language, fully-documented, that told you what the computer did. (I still have a copy.)

Because these two systems sported an open architecture, they immediately gained a large host of add-ons, both hardware and software. That helped promote the brands, and helped make those two platforms wildly popular.

Contrast the openness of the Apple II with other home computers and you see why it was so popular: The Radio Shack TRS-80 and the Commodore 64 were closed-architecture machines. Most of the software you could get game from Radio Shack or Commodore. There were third-party add-ons, but not the extent you saw for the Apple II.

Of course, open architecture has a downside as well. No one really vets all the add-on hardware and software for the machines. You could get something for the IBM PC, for example, that would be completely incompatible with other software or hardware. That made modifying the PC possible, but also opened the door for massive amounts of troubleshooting to get all the pieces to cooperate.

So open architecture turns out to be a double-edged sword. On the one edge you have a computer platform that can be tremendously popular and successful. On the other hand, you can have incompatibilities and lots of support issues.

Between Apple and Microsoft, Apple has taken the closed architecture approach. It’s ironic, especially given that Apple pretty much pioneered open architecture with the Apple II. Then again, Apple’s computers and mobile devices work; Apple’s support costs are low.

Microsoft still supports open architecture, primarily that just about any loosely-screwed together contraption called a “PC” can manage to load the Windows operating system. And we all know that their technical support is an issue.

Still, it’s the Windows platform that continues to thrive. The Mac isn’t dead. It’s more reliable than a PC running Windows, but the price paid is that Apple controls everything. My fear is that such control may eventually turn the Mac into an appliance, not a real computer. That doesn’t bode well for the future.


  1. I personally am against the Apple closed architecture, especially on the iPhone, iPod Touch and now the iPad. I’m not the biggest fan of these devices, you could say I hate them very much (which I do, even though I’ve not even used an iPad yet). Because Apple acts as the Gatekeeper, only those applications which it deems Appropriate are allowed through. And if it competes with their software, nope, sorry, can’t have that. Apple wants you to have what they want on their shiny phone.

    In contrast, with Windows Mobile, HTC seem to have Opera Mobile loaded onto every one of their models with Windows Mobile on it. And do Microsoft care? I don’t hear them complaining, so I will assume no. Hell, HTC even completely overhaul the Windows Mobile interface, and I don’t think Microsoft really cares to be honest. And at this point, they really can’t: Windows Mobile is losing popularity. Same thing with Google Android but to a greater extent: it’s open source so there are greater modifications that companies can do to it. And again, Google don’t care what you load onto your phone.

    In the same regard, if Microsoft were to do this, the world would be kicking up a stink. Microsoft controlling what applications we’re allowed to use? We can’t have that! Apple controlling what we use on our computers? Eh, who cares? They make shiny things.

    My theory is this: You own it, you should be able to do whatever you want with it. It should not be up to one company to decide what you do with your things.


    Comment by Douglas — February 3, 2010 @ 3:16 am

  2. I’ll just stick with my IBM PS/2 Model 25 and The Vintage Computer Forums. Better than some help desks nowadays.

    In the 5th edition of PCs for dummies, there’s a picture some guy with his face up close to the camera who looks like D:, was that you? It was in the section on changing wallpaper, I think the filename was MR GOOKIN or something like that

    Comment by linuxlove — February 3, 2010 @ 9:25 am

  3. Good points, Douglas, especially on Microsoft and their penchant toward control. If Apple transfers its maniacal control of mobile devices over the Mac, then Apple is going to die.

    Linuxlove: If you’re talking about Figure 8-1, then that’s my son Simon’s face. Otherwise I’d need to know which figure you’re referring to. Simon just turned 17 today.

    Comment by admin — February 3, 2010 @ 10:01 am

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