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Microsoft buys Nokia handset unit: It's an end-to-end world after all

Forget open systems, an Android-powered world, and possibly the entire concept of hardware partners. Microsoft just subscribed wholeheartedly to the Apple model of vertically integrated software and hardware. So is end-to-end the end of platforms?

Stephen Lam

Remember when Apple lived and died by vertically integrated software and hardware, while Google and Microsoft stood their philosophical ground and created open and not-very-open software (respectively) in order to proliferate across myriad devices and gobble up market share in the doing?

So, that seems over now. Suddenly Google and Microsoft are intensely in the hardware game. Google creates custom hardware to show off and expand its Android and Chrome OS powers, buys Motorola Mobility and risks all kinds of partner wrath to put Google bells and whistles on the new Moto X. And then Microsoft goes and drops $7 billion on Nokia's device and services division in a last-ditch effort to power Windows Phone to success by exerting total control. It would seem that end-to-end has won.

I guess this leaves Apple laughing all the way to the bank, right? The company that pioneered the conversation about controlling every part of the customer experience seems to have been proven right on a grand scale. The company that refused to allow Mac clones to be sold, refused to license OS X, and faced down at least 142,365 declarations that its closed systems would inevitably die seems to have, in fact, been right about this one thing: a tightly controlled, well designed, relatively closed-off end-to-end system does generally produce better products.

Now, at this point, we will engage in a debate about the definition of the term "better." When I say "better" in this context, I mean products that are accessible, popular, consistent, reliable, and very, very, very lucrative. In this world, the latter attribute is the best definition of "better" you're likely to find.

You will note that Samsung began to outsell Apple in phones only once it took inexorable control over Android and began to customize it and develop on top of it to such an extent that Android is almost invisible -- thus, its products got "better" and more popular as they got consistent, differentiated, and recognizable.

Similarly, Google found itself in the hardware game when it realized that creating Android "reference" phones was the best way to show the operating system's best capabilities, which were often watered down or obscured in the plethora of cheap phones that were, little by little, beginning to seriously damage the Android brand. And it finds itself creeping toward end-to-end production of Motorola phones, despite partner-appeasing demurring to the contrary.

Microsoft in 2008 abandoned the previously open approach of its old Windows Mobile platform in favor of a more tightly controlled, iOS-like developer experience for Windows Phone--in hopes of ensuring higher quality apps, greater stability, and an overall improved experience. That was the baby step: buying Nokia is the big bear hug. It turns out that control is easier, faster, more efficient, and maybe even better.

Then what does that actually say about open systems? Does that mean they've failed?

So, tech industry, how does your garden grow? Daniel Terdiman

Not entirely; what Apple really pioneered was a method of being closed, but not completely closed. After all, iOS flourished most on the backs of third-party developers who, within sometimes draconian boundaries, built a thriving ecosystem of apps. Apple built and watered the garden and generally decided what to weed out but allowed in the birds and the bees that brought in surprising and lovely new plant life.

So, perhaps the debate was all wrong, as black and white debates usually are. All the way open creates a confusing, inconsistent mess that's bad for consumers, hardware partners, and developers. All the way closed chokes off any hope of innovation and growth and fruitful happenstance. The middle ground: a, yes, curated garden, seems to be best for all involved?

That's certainly what Microsoft is hoping now: that a combination of research, manufacturing, and marketing efficiencies will let it turn out the best possible version of Windows Phone and save it time to get to the really important work of wooing developers and getting freaking Instagram ported.

This won't be the end of the platform conversation, though. After all, an end-to-end world does lead to a clash of titans that itself harms consumers: witness Google and Apple's little fights about maps and apps and interoperability. And it's getting harder and harder for developers to decide which proprietary ecosystem to develop for--the Web may end up being the last platform standing.

Plus, controlled ecosystems have costs both literal and otherwise. Firefox OS and Ubuntu on smart phones promise cheaper alternatives that don't dock with giant, data-sucking monoliths who are probably passing most of that data to the NSA.

Growing security and privacy concerns plus a sudden influx of cheap, unlocked phones in the U.S. market and elsewhere might turn this whole idea on its head all over again. But that will only if the phones are good, the OS is intuitive, and the apps are abundant. The modern consumer has spoken, and that's how we've defined "better," for better or worse.