When the reviews for the Apple HomePod came out recently, they all basically said the same thing: The smart speaker sounds great, but its limitations and closed ecosystem are incredibly frustrating. The number one complaint? The Homepod doesn't work natively with Spotify, the world's most popular streaming service.
Perhaps it wasn't a coincidence then that this week, a job posting by Spotify suggested that the music service was looking to make its own hardware, most likely a smart speaker competitor to the HomePod. In tech, it appears the old adage goes the other way around: If you can't join them, beat them.
For Spotify, the move makes perfect sense. Instead of relying on Apple, Google, Amazon, or a host of other companies to support its service, it instead looks to bolster its own offering. But if Spotify does make its own speaker, the move will be another sign that the only way to get ahead in tech is to own everything yourself — and, thus, that the open standards that made the web great are in serious trouble.
Controlling an ecosystem from top to bottom is called "owning the stack," and no one has done it more effectively than Apple. The iPhone and Mac maker creates and owns the software, hardware, and services for its devices, and its success is often attributed to this tactic. Doing so allows Apple to maximize performance, increase reliability, and create features like AirPlay which bypass standards like Bluetooth to make wirelessly playing music on speakers easier. It's also the reason the iPhone was initially leaps and bounds beyond the competition — the seamless integration of interface and hardware was a real leap forward.
But when proprietary models become so popular and lucrative — Apple is now the richest company in history — open standards start to suffer. Because there is so much money in the Apple ecosystem, accessory makers and software services start to gravitate toward the economic center that is iOS, letting standards like Bluetooth or USB-C lag. This is to say nothing of genuinely open-source standards that are not constrained by patents or ownership, like PDFs or certain audio formats. There is also the broader issue of missing new open standards that might match or exceed the proprietary ones. When all the money is in the exclusive, however, there is little incentive for tech makers to either research or adopt them.
It is open standards, however, that allowed for the web to flourish. It was http, TCP/IP, and others that let a person set up a webpage and safely know that anyone across the world could access it. SMS messages could be implemented by all cellular carriers, letting anyone with a phone send a message to another user (unlike the absurd panoply of messaging services that exist today). And just as importantly, it was the very existence of open standards that let enormous companies like Facebook and Google gain their foothold and later secure their dominance. After all, how do you reach billions of people unless everyone's browser works in basically the same way and accesses the same things? In that sense, standards are the building blocks of online infrastructure.
But because Apple has become so successful, others are trying to mimic its success. Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and more are all building out ecosystems in which their products work best with their own stuff and services. The goal is always the same: consumer lock in. It makes sense. It is genuinely easier when you get an Android phone to just move everything over to Google's services like Gmail, Google Calendar, or Google Drive (you are lured into the latter which the promise of free storage for photos taken on your Google phone, but not, say, an iPhone). And controlling everything this way can arguably produce a better user experience. Instead of the confusing mishmash of random hardware and services, you instead get Device X designed to work perfectly with Standard Y. Compare using Apple's AirPods wireless headphones to the buggy Bluetooth version, and it's clear there are some advantages for consumers to the vertically integrated approach.
But open standards are just that: open. They form a base for others to build on. The fact that Spotify has to consider building its own speaker at all is a sign of something very wrong — of a tech ecosystem that rewards closed, proprietary approaches instead of the freer philosophy that characterized the best of the early internet.
Yes, it's true that times have changed. We have seen that the ideals of the early web can be corrupted and turned against themselves. Their very openness makes them vulnerable to bad actors, bots, and more. But the principle that you shouldn't have to buy into one company's vision of tech is still desirable, and achievable, too. It requires education, lobbying from open standards groups like Mozilla — but most importantly, consumer action, and tech innovation on superior new standards for users to rally around.
After all, a new speaker from Spotify may well sound great — but if things were as they should be, it shouldn't even have to be made.