Open Systems

Reflections on the Heathkit and other open systems of days gone by

Illustration: Christian Northeast

Occasionally, I indulge in a bit of nostalgia over those long-ago days of Heathkit. Of course, building a Heathkit was the electronics equivalent of painting a Rembrandt by the numbers, but I remember how proud I was when a project was done. It was a great starting point for growing up to be an engineer. There's something else to cherish about those Heathkits, though: their openness. Whatever might go wrong with the Heathkit, I could fix it. I had access to all the parts and complete schematics and circuit descriptions. It was truly mine.

The electronics world of today is profoundly different. None of the many gadgets that litter my house could be considered open. "No user-serviceable parts inside" is the ubiquitous phrase of warning—you're apparently going to be electrocuted if you open the back of the gadget, and worse yet, you'll void the warranty. Many won't let you add memory or even change the battery!

These systems couldn't be more different from the old Heathkits. For one thing, they seldom break, so information about how to fix them is unneeded. There's almost nothing inside anyway, just an embedded processor and some firmware. And whatever this gadget is and does, with a change in firmware it could be and do something different—except, of course, that you're not allowed to touch it. In contrast, the old Heathkit—which you were allowed, even encouraged, to touch—was what it was, and could never be different.

Manufacturers are understandably reluctant to open their designs. They fear someone will reverse engineer the product, produce it more cheaply, and undercut their market. They also worry about supporting users who've crippled or ruined their devices.

Some consumer devices get opened up by hackers—a trick known as jailbreaking—and, while strictly speaking, this might be illegal, a bit of anarchy might not be entirely bad if it stimulated innovation. Indeed, there are a number of examples of open systems built on top of others, some of which are closed. In recent decades we have seen the tremendous value in opening innovation up to the public by providing a stable platform. The Internet itself is the greatest example—a core platform consisting of a set of protocols on which millions upon millions of people have innovated and created enormous value for all humanity.

On a smaller scale we have partially open systems that have inspired a great deal of innovation. Many have application programming interfaces that allow third-party add-ons. More recently, the advent of the app store has provided a wonderful model for allowing public innovation around a closed, proprietary platform. For the platform manufacturer, this can increase its market many times, and at little expense.

In maintaining a stable platform there is always the danger of being painted into a corner, where it becomes impossible to change the platform because of everything that has come to surround it. Microsoft Windows is a prime example, as is the Internet itself. A lot of people, now given the benefit of hindsight, would like to change the underlying protocols of the Internet. But the weight of legacy is so overwhelming that even the thought of such change is heresy.

The whole question of how much and where a system should be open is fascinating. With the PC, IBM opened the design to third parties, while Apple maintained a closed design. The market chose the IBM design, but it was ultimately a market in which IBM itself had no inherent advantage. On the other hand, Apple has been able to maintain its market—albeit with a much smaller share—through the years, as well as its independence and design integrity. It retained the freedom to break a lot of legacy software when it created a completely new operating system, Mac OS X, an option that Microsoft doesn't seem to have.

As an engineer, I'm conflicted. I don't like these devices that lock me out. But intellectually, I understand that manufacturers have to make money or they wouldn't be able to create these great products. I also understand the value of maintaining stable platforms. Nevertheless, I'm an engineer and yearn to tinker with these closed boxes. It's what I grew up doing.

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