Open or Closed Networks: How well do we play with others?

no-appleA colleague wanted to share some pictures with me yesterday. She sent me a link to her photostream. Simple enough, I clicked the link and found that it didn’t work with the browser I was using (google chrome for android). Okay, I’ll just install the software for PC… Nope, can’t do that either. I cannot access these pictures unless I buy an apple product or install OS10 or higher on a virtual server on my local machine… not gonna do that.

The Ipod. The Iphone. The Ipad. Yes, they were and are heralded as the super-awesome-things-that-will-change-your-life. But are they really? I mean c’mon, Siri is cool and all, but there are only so many times you can ask here absurd questions just to hear her silly responses before it’s time to move on to some other topic du jour.

I’d like to let you know right now, I despise apple… and their shady financial dealings.

I’m an android guy. I’m a PC guy. I know, I just offended all of the people reading this who spent all that money on that really cool looking gizmo that have a hard time working with any of the other gizmos out there.

The bigger question in my mind is about networks. Open vs. closed. How well do we play with others?

Being the proponent of the non-profit sector learning to operate more like business, an examination of efficacy is in order here. Is it better to maintain a closed architecture; one that remains closed to outside intervention, that develops its own proprietary infrastructure, and then works to gain market share? Or is it better to build and entity that shares its source so that others may more easily plug into the movement that they have begun at a lower cost and a higher rate?

I can see arguments for both sides of the equation.

On the one side, there is the Apple model which says that we should build a closed loop, that everyone should have to come to us for everything they need and that we can license out technology to others for a profit. This model is certainly prone to creating large sums of revenue as evidenced by Apple’s more than $150 billion in annual revenues. This type of tactic pared with the sheer volume financial resources created provides ample backing for research and development, excellent customer support, and an overall great user experience.

On the other hand though, the Android model of open source leaves much of the equation up to the end user. This model allows users to customize their experience, to share their customizations with each other and creates a community of like-minded individuals all seeking to make the product better. While this method yields lower revenue evidenced by Google’s lower-than-apple-but-totally-respectable $50 billion in annual revenue, it also means a higher rate of adoption among potential users. Currently, Android-based devices control over 70% of the global market for mobile devices.

So the question is, open or closed? Should my organization be working toward a closed-loop, proprietary structure or an open-source platform for community interaction and engagement.

The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), and the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program are two examples of an open vs closed platforms.

In the NFTE model, which reached more than 500,000 people last year, instructors can purchase guides, workbooks and other resources through the national website for around $65.00. after that they own the material and can develop their coursework around it however they see fit. People have adapted this program for all sorts of applications. Some of my favorites include the Prison Entrepreneurship Program and Defy Ventures.

In the Ice House model, who doesn’t publish numbers served, each student is required to purchase a license for $200.00 that grants them a text book, a workbook, and access to an online portal for a blended classroom delivery. The instructors must attend a training seminar that costs an additional $1000.00. The course is the course, the price is the price. Certainly, different instructors will have their different takes on the subject matter but the pricing and rigid structure limit the ability of many to implement the program and certainly leave them without much ability to adapt the program to a diverse set of populations.

I’ve looked at both of these, even attended the training for the Ice House program. Both are great programs, and both have the opportunity to significantly impact underserved populations the world over. I’m not saying that one is better than the other, simply comparing the models. And asking some questions.

Questions like, what are we trying to do here? Are we trying to build programs and non-profits that work well within the confines of their own boundaries, or are we trying to build collaborative structures that allow those in close proximity the opportunity to plugin and develop an ever increasingly sophisticated network of services? Sure, the closed system typically means more profit but an open architecture typically provides a deeper penetration into communities and populations. That means more funders, volunteers, and cheerleaders along the way as we seek to serve our individual populations more effectively.

Closed architecture is simple. We build it and market it and people either adopt it or they don’t. Open architecture is more difficult. I requires a degree of humility and flexibility; to go out there and try something different while opening up the results of that effort to modification or rejection from others. But it may just be that modification or rejection are just the things that are needed to perfect the model and move it and our constituents to the next level.


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