Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Closed Standards & Moral Outrage

I often find myself sympathetic with the idea that the counterfactual world the open source folks imagine would be objectively better: oceans of highly customized products for the galaxy of customer desires that dot the consumer landscape. You want a life-size version of the Decepticon Soundwave that will breakdance on your helicopter pad out back? We got an app for that. Closed protocols make that world marginally harder to attain, particularly if network switching costs are insurmountable.

Coerced by capitalized network value?

On Twitter, Brock Cusick described the gap between the counterfactual, open source world and the one we actually live in as "deadweight loss", which seems to me to be a bit of a misapplication of the term, but the overall observation is, I think, spot on.

Imagine a tabula rasa with no Facebook, no Skype, no iPhone, no whatever. You're sitting at the top of a game tree deciding whether or not to take the high road or the low road. You think you know what's coming, but you're really just making your best guess, both about the sort of services you'll be getting and about the value of the network that will glom on the product. If the closed-protocol branch looks better ex ante, it should surprise no one that that's the one that gets the customers.

Nobody uses G+ anymore, it's too crowded.

Anyway, is this de facto sort of coercion by consumer surplus, by network benefits if you will something we should fold to when we form our moral intuitions? The consequential arguments are pretty obvious: we'd be better off with innovation, both more and faster (here we come, white and trashy and incredibly dumb). But it's hard to see how, say, property rights are being violated. And BATNA disparities would be well-mocked in a "first world problems" series of image macros (that's the right name for those, by the by. "Meme" is a more general term for cultural transmission elements). Maybe there's a case for regret aversion, but it doesn't seem to be systematic regret, and even if it were, it would still be tough to tell a priori that there's any negligence or fraud going on.

What think ye? Are closed, proprietary protocols euvoluntary? Why or why not?

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?