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Walled gardens are great when a medium is brand new. Without history and without a critical mass of knowledgeable individuals it's very much more difficult for individuals to find offerings of sufficient quality, and then from there to filter based on individual preferences and needs. Such was the case with mobile apps when the iphone came around. The quality of mobile apps tended to be rather poor at the time and there was a bewildering array of them. The iphone introduced a huge new chunk of people to smartphones, the appstore model was an attempt to raise the quality bar of mobile apps and to make it easier for users to find and buy apps. And it worked spectacularly well, propelling a once questionable development arena to enormous heights of popularity (and in some cases profitability).

If you look back on, for example, video game development you can see the problems that can occur without such walled gardens. The home video game market boomed in the late 70s and early 80s, with families buying new games like hotcakes. A lot of game makers jumped on the bandwagon and pumped the market full of low quality games. Whereas in previous years the total number of games for the Atari 2600, for example, had been in the low dozens in 1982/83 this number ballooned to hundreds. Consumers could no longer have much confidence in which games to buy and so they stopped buying, leading to a massive crash of the video game industry in the US that lasted until Nintendo came along with its own walled garden approach.

However, the video game industry has matured since then, and walled gardens are no longer very helpful (there are far more than sufficient resources these days to determine which games to buy and which to avoid based on individual preferences).

As the mobile app market continues to mature it will strain against its walled garden confines more and more. Increasingly such hand-holding is less necessary and more and more restrictive. Apple has a choice to recognize that the market is changing and to adapt or to ignore the changes and pretend as though it's still 2008 while the world passes them by.




I'm having trouble with your argument. After all, the 2600 was the original walled garden from which all others have sprung. It was also the source of court cases which set precedent for walled gardens. If I remember correctly, Atari ROMs had an image in them that the firmware checked for before allowing the ROM to run. But the image was copyrighted, so you couldn't sell Atari ROMs without giving a cut to Atari. The only exception was Tengen, who had a historical license due to being a spin-off of Atari.

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What you say is true for the Atari 7800, not the 2600. The 2600 had no protection or verification at all; it wasn't remotely thought of when the 2600 was designed in 1977. The 2600 happily runs any ROM at all containing executable 6502 machine code. There isn't even any BIOS in the 2600. Literally all it does at startup is point the program counter to an address within the ROM address space.

The 2600 was walled-by-obscurity for its first several years, since the video chip was custom designed by Atari and not documented publicly, plus the tools to write and compile and run 6502 assembler were fairly primitive. But by 1982 or so, enough reverse-engineering had been done and the tools had matured and enough Atari expertise was available on the hiring market that the system was essentially fully open.

(I've been there - I wrote an Atari 2600 game my freshman year of college in 1997.)

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OK, so I didn't remember correctly. I'm glad I put that disclaimer in my first comment! I tried to Google for it, but the late 70s is prehistory for Google.

I'm still having trouble buying the collapse of the walled garden as the reason for the video game crash of 83-84. Pac-man and ET are widely cited as two of the major causes of the crash, and those were in-house Atari productions so the walled garden wouldn't have helped there.

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Well, garden collapse was one factor among many. It could be argued that Atari had to rush their shoddy Pac-man to market lest a competitor jump in with a clone first. Another factor was the appearance of pornographic games (Rule 34 applied even then) which hurt the field's reputation.

But there were plenty of other management and business causes of the crash too. Atari reportedly produced more ET cartridges than existed 2600 systems, hubristically deciding that ET would drive a wave of system buying. That sort of financial wizardry won't be saved by any amount of ecosystem walls.

I'd say that the openness of the system caused the failure of Atari itself more so than it caused the industrywide crash. Atari couldn't maintain premium game prices and volume against the flood of competition. (If better games weren't available, ET would have sold more in the vacuum.) A similar story played out in the PC market over the next decade: IBM created an open system, then got marginalized out of their own industry in a race to the bottom. But the whole PC industry always thrived.

I also think the crash itself is overblown in latter-day coverage. I was a kid and didn't notice anything at the time; Toys R Us still had shelves full of Atari games right up until the NES caught on. The bankruptcy of invincible titan Atari itself was a big event, but Coleco didn't fold until 1988 and Mattel and Magnavox trucked right on in other fields of business.

So tying all this back to the topic, remember that Apple's interest is Apple's own survivability and profitability. Apple's responsibility is not to maximize the adoption and utility of the mobile phone app market in general. Apple's goal is to capture the biggest slice of the pie for itself, and it perceives that it has the clout to do that by dictating terms. Whether they will go the way of the NES to market domination or the way of IBM's Micro Channel to obscurity is up to the market.

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You are misrembering history a bit here. The "lockout chip" concept came with Nintendo's NES (Famicom in Japan). Tengen bypassed the lockout chip for their games (including their NES version of Tetris which many consider vastly superior to Nintendo's implementation) and this resulted in a lawsuit from Nintendo which was eventually settled because the court ruled that there was no copyright claim and that Nintendo's patent claim was probably too weak to stand (though the settlement occured before that was passed back to the USPTO).

Having said all of that, I too am confused with the argument here -- the videogame console market is very much a walled garden and has been for a very long time.

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Don't quite agree with your statement "As the mobile app market continues to mature it will strain against its walled garden confines more and more". On the contrary, I feel that consumers will continue to appreciate walled gardens for their convenience, quality and trust worthiness.

I guess this argument will be tested by the Mac app store.

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Which is a maze, inconvenient and yes I guess trustworthy - at least for the consumer.

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I don't think I've ever seen anyone blame the 80s videogame crash on raw number of available titles. Everything I've read to date points to the nose-dive in average quality.

i.e. People weren't driven away by the array of choices. They were driven away by bad experiences.

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As an early 80s mom, dad, or child (the people who made the buying choices for video games) how do you decide what games to buy? When a dozen games are made a year and they are all generally good you can buy based on what looks interesting. Moreover, with such a small number of products the chance that someone you know has already played a recently released game and can give you an opinion on it is high. This meant that consumers had a high chance of getting something good just based on blind buying decisions and they also had a fairly easy time of learning about the gems. When the video game bubble hit full force the market was flooded with hundreds of games, many of them low quality, far too many for people to keep up with.

The system broke down, the chances of buying a good game just on chance were low, and thus the chances that any of your friends had happened to buy a good game was also low. It only took a few times of people getting burned for them to stop taking the risk and to curtail their game buying, staying content with the existing library of games they had. Even though there were still many quality games (donkey kong jr, joust, ms. pac man, and pole position were all released in '83), there was so much crap that people simply withdrew from the market. Moreover, the bubble was reliant on an unlikely massive growth spurt in video game buying, the game industry over leveraged itself, it would have crashed even without a collapse of consumer confidence.

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> However, the video game industry has matured since then, and walled gardens are no longer very helpful (there are far more than sufficient resources these days to determine which games to buy and which to avoid based on individual preferences).

The game console industry is still very much based on walled gardens.

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