Apple, since its 1970s launch, has enjoyed special favor and even worship from the open source community, free thinkers and supporters of open standards. And yet, with each new step, Apple becomes more closed. That’s why, as the cash registers ring in Cupertino, peril lies ahead.

Apple, ever since its birth in the 1970s, has enjoyed special favor and even zealous worship from members of the open source community, self-proclaimed free thinkers and supporters of open standards. And yet, with each new step it takes, the company becomes more closed. But while closed practices are currently cranking the cash registers in Cupertino, peril lies ahead.

From the early days of development of its Unix-based operating system to its battles with purportedly Orwellian companies like IBM and Microsoft to the jeans-wearing corporate culture it has always nurtured, Apple has always had an easy time wooing the freewheeling computing counterculture, including the open source community. In recent years, though, even as it has (deservedly) earned “company of the decade” accolades, Apple has become more and more closed.

Tom Foremski recently noted that Apple is actually becoming more closed with every new device it delivers. As he writes:

“Since the introduction of the iPod, iPhone, and now the iPad, Apple is becoming less and less open, it is using fewer standard components and chips, and far fewer Internet technologies common to Mac/PC desktop and laptop systems.”

Foremski also notes that Apple’s upcoming iPad is “a much more closed system than any of Apple’s products from the past 10 years.” It runs only the A4 processor — a chip that other companies can’t buy. It runs a restrictive, non-multitasking operating system: the iPhone OS. Even its connectivity is very limited, and, presumably, ongoing dongles and hardware connectivity options for it will be available mostly just from Apple. Citing “zero-sum maneuvering against hated rivals,” the Wall Street Journal recently took the iPad to task for not supporting common platforms such as Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight (locking users into iTunes-only content).

Picking up the thread, newly crowned Canonical COO and open source blogger Matt Asay wonders if Apple is the new Microsoft. He asks whether “Apple is the company that creates insanely great business strategies for locking customers into its walled-garden content emporium.”

Proprietary strategies have paid off big time for Apple. Its revenues exploded and its stock soared even as many people questioned its closed practices with the iPod, iTunes and the iPhone. But I predict that the iPad, aggressively closed as it is, will illustrate the folly of remaining strictly closed over the long run.

On a tablet-style device as slick as the iPad is, people will not be content with only the types of applications made available thus far for the iPhone. In fact, Om has predicted that we may see brand new types of applications and web sites crop up specifically for the iPad. If the device becomes popular, people will clamor for an open development environment, and, as I’ve pointed out, they will reach beyond the iPhone OS on the iPad by virtualizing other operating systems that extend to more applications.

As one reader of my post on Citrix’s virtualization software, which will let iPad users run Windows 7 applications, pointed out, “Most of the REAL work I do happens on remote servers that I access remotely through Citrix.” That’s not true for everyone, but, indeed, there are numerous bridges that require no virtualization that iPad users will take advantage of to reach for cloud-based applications. They’ll use applications in the cloud in the same way that users of Google’s Chrome OS will. What they won’t do is just lie down and accept total OS and application lock-down from Apple.

Years ago, when Apple delivered Boot Camp, which allows many Mac users to dual-boot the Mac OS with Microsoft Windows, some observers argued that Hell had frozen over. It hadn’t, though. Apple had no choice but to open its kimono and make a Windows-friendly move in a world teeming with virtualization options. Virtualization was arriving for free in other operating systems.

And that’s exactly the kind of free, open trend that will increasingly foil Apple if it doesn’t pursue more open policies. Virtualization and cloud computing will both, increasingly, usher in a world where it’s commonplace to run multiple operating systems, opening up robust types of choices in applications. Google’s Chrome OS embraces all of this so fully that its users will run all their applications in the cloud.  In the epic square-off between Apple and Google, Google is embracing openness much more than Apple is, and is making lots of money. Open source guru Dana Blankenhorn has noted that Red Hat’s new operating system, virtualization and open cloud initiatives — delivered this week — stand a good chance of stripping away proprietary advantages pursued by Microsoft and Oracle.

Free, open tools will arrive for circumventing and complementing Apple’s proprietary platforms. They’ll function as detours around oppressive  obstructions. I’ve heard the arguments against this, such as “Apple designs beautiful products that just work together, and that’s what users want” and “Apple is making tons of money with closed practices” and so on. The company does have to open its policies and practices, though, even as its closed moves keep causing cash registers to ring. Otherwise, new products that reach out to multiple operating systems and much larger appscapes will arrive. And tech  history has shown that he who delivers the largest appscape wins.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Djenan.

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  1. Pete Mortensen Friday, February 12, 2010

    It is the height of absurdity to claim Apple is more closed today than it ever has been. At least on the software front, it’s far more open. WebKit is the basis of every mobile browser worth its salt, and Apple has made its source available to everyone for free. Music sold through iTunes today can play on virtually any media player, which is a big step up from years ago.

    And citing the A4 as a sign of closedness is downright silly. It’s just a custom ARM processor, no different in that way from Qualcomm’s Snapdragon. But Qualcomm’s business model makes selling their chip to other companies a priority, while Apple’s business model makes using their chip only in their products a priority. To call Qualcomm open and Apple closed in this situation would be the height of absurdity — neither’s giving away their processor design for free or open-sourcing it, they’re just selling to different customers. No multitasking is a closed philosophy? How? A

    nd Apple has shown it’s more than willing to open up the port on the bottom of the iPad and iPhone to outside development. Just today, Apple approved a third-party to market and sell RS-232 and RJ-11 adapters for iPad and iPhone, which seems antithetical to a company intent on keeping other hardware out.

    This is a lot of hype from companies whose survival depends on painting Apple as closed-loop. The question to ask, however, is why anyone thinks Google is more open than Apple. They share some APIs for mash-ups as it suits them, and Android and Chrome are open-source. But GMail is totally closed down. The search algorithm is ridiculously closed. Google leaves everything that they make no money from free and open, and they close down everything to do with their business model.

    Sound familiar?

  2. “locking users into iTunes-only content”

    Is it possible to write even more nonsense?

    1. Actually I think this is dead on. Apple wants to lock in folks to their content delivery system and it is not above locking out competitors to do so.

      In fact its app store policies explicitly disallow the creation of applications which replicate core functionality. So if I’m Amazon and I want to create an application for the iPad that allows users to directly purchase, download and consume my content (all of which duplicates functionality provided by Apple) will I be allowed to do so? And don’t give me the “you can switch to your PC, buy the content their, move it under iTunes, sync to the iPad” argument – yes that’s technically possible but since one of the main drivers here is convenience it is not really competing on even footing.

      If Apple permits such applications to run on their devices, then for me that’s open enough – but so far they have not shown such a willingness.

      1. nobody is barred from using amazon and their downloader, for example (which populates downloads in your itunes folder)…..Control over user experience and presentation is what Apple uses to distinguish itself in the market. Hard to find fault in an operating model. Avoid it if it rubs you wrong, right?

  3. Sebastian Rupley Friday, February 12, 2010

    @ George — Apple is pretty territorial about iTunes I would say. Why doesn’t the iPad do Flash when the majority of the video online is Flash?


    1. Yehuda Katz, a friend, coworker, and generally recognized bright guy, explained why to me.

      Safari is a standards compliant browser. Really standards compliant. But, the standards it supports are license free.

      Video is a huge part of the internet, and is getting more important every day. Do we want any part of the internet based on proprietary formats that are patent encumbered?

      I think not. This is hard on both Apple, its users, and Adobe. But, in the long run, we’ll all appreciate it.

      HTML 5 is the way forward towards openness.

      From where I sit, I’m comfortable with Apple creating any sort of walled garden it wants, so long as the browser remains standards compliant.

    2. (I for myself don’t care about most of the online video.)
      Why is it delivered via flash? Maybe because Adobe was in a lucky position some years ago and they catched the market; but markets change (hello, html5).
      However, content dealers realized already that THEY lose business if they don’t offer their content in a standards-compatible way (this excludes Flash). Easy as that.
      P. S. I’m looking forward to the day when Adobe will deliver a Flash performance on mobile pocket computers which will provide a decent user experience (dare I say good or excellent). Won’t happen IMO but we’ll see. Adobe has nothing to deliver at the moment. Zero. Bye, Flash. That I’ll see the day without Flash, wonderful. Peace.

    3. Adobe sits on Flash – it is totally stagnant. They only have a 32 bit binary and it won’t run on any of Apple’s (or anybody’s) portable hardware. The chips can’t do it.

      1. Could you clarify what you mean when you say “it won’t run” ? There are plenty of browsers for other mobile OSs’ that support flash.

    4. Sebastian, isn’t Flash, at least the video portion simply a wrapper around h.264 and many other codecs. I think it is, Flash is simply a wrapper with a .flv or f4v that is open, but most of the video codecs and compression formats within the wrapper are patented and have to be licensed. How then is the use of Flash different from simply using .h264 or possibly even using Quicktime as the wrapper?

      What is the big deal really? Why should Apple support Adobe at all in a competitive marketplace. Shouldn’t we allow users to choose. If enough people choose the iPad or iPhone or whatever and if Flash dies and as along as Apple doesn’t act illegally what is wrong with that? I feel the people who are complaining are people with a vested interest in the use of Flash, flash developers and websites that have committed to using Flash and non of this is expressed by the people making the complaints.

      If Apple’s approach is closed, then it should fail in the market place and if it does not then perhaps there is room for a closed approach.

    5. Supporting flash could harm app store and itunes. Users will download fewer apps and instead will play games on websites, watch movies on Hulu, etc.

  4. Excuse me george, but not allowing apps because they embed media and confuse users is a veiled attempt to entrench iTunes. iTunes content is generally open, or can be, so nobody is arguing that point. Mobile is computing however, and if Apple continues to block browsers and such as with Opera, it will be to the detriment of the platform.

    Apple has lovely tech, but the market tactics are really disheartening.

    1. Apple has never blocked a single browser on anything. Name one. Opera Mobile btw has not been submitted to the app store. Check your facts. Mozilla has not made an iPhone browser because they said publicly and clearly that they did not see the point since they could not make one as good as mobile safari.

      1. We’ll see if they approve the Opera browser which is not based on WebKit.

  5. Sebastian Rupley Friday, February 12, 2010

    @Pete — you make a good point about WebKit, and I am a big fan of it, but it’s an example of exactly what you said about Google…keeping something open when it isn’t the company’s cash cow, while closing things that are cash cows. While some third-parties will have hardware accessories for the iPad, Apple obviously approached connectivity in such a way that it can sell its own hw connectivity options. And I don’t think iTunes deserves to be called open despite any “steps” recently taken.


  6. Does Sebastian Rupley really believe Apple will follow a path that will cost them in the marketplace?

    1. Apple would be wise to do the opposite of whatever Sebastian recommends.

  7. James T. Laing Friday, February 12, 2010

    I don’t care what you haters say. I’m with Apple – win, lose or draw. And if that means no flash content, then so be it. The HTML 5 Revolution cometh, and that right soon…

  8. Sebastian, I guess the push-back is “what do you mean by open” and “open for whom?”

    In other words, quibbles aside, developers, the ultimate arbiter of utility, value and ability to get the job done, are flocking to the platform in a big way.

    It’s clearly “open” enough for them to create apps that by any measure haven’t been approached by the more “open” android or any other mobile platform, open or closed.

    As to consumers, the experience is plenty open. The web is wide open if you want that, and they have the best mobile browser. Plus, in terms of openness, the App Store shelves are stocked with variety across pretty much any category that you can imagine.

    If anything, Google’s move to roll out a more proprietary Nexus device speaks volumes that openness is like salt; everyone’s taste buds are a little bit different, and as such, opinions vary widely on what’s the right amount, and what’s too much.

    Net-net: if Google’s the best big company measuring stick of openness, let’s talk when they open up their index, reveal their spread on ad sense or open source, Google Maps, for example.

    Food for thought.


    1. Oh its far, far worse than that. Lets have google show just what personal information they collect of their users and how they monetize it without their permission. People should already know this but they don’t. Perceptions of Google would change overnight.

  9. Sebastian Rupley Friday, February 12, 2010

    @ Mark, yep I agree with you that Google tends to be open in ways that benefit it and is not open when it comes to the central revenue-driving engines, and they’ve essentially said as much: http://gigaom.com/2009/12/21/googles-open-manifesto-tells-it-like-it-is/ Nevertheless, Apple is increasingly steering away from common proprietary standards as well as purely open ones. That can cost plenty down the line. In the case of the iPad, for example, someone could deliver a truly open tablet that runs multiple operating systems and thereby trounces the app availability that there is for the iPhone OS. It might have more flexible hardware connectivity, and be open to media types, including Flash and everything else, that Apple turns a cold shoulder toward.


    1. @Sebastian, ironically, I was Comment One on the piece that you referred to because I thought that Google’s position was selective openness, putting it kindly.

      Nonetheless, your assertion that Apple is steering away from standards is a head-scratcher, save for Flash, which while admittedly a HUGELY popular format, is enough of a dog with fleas that at least any Mac owner can attest is as much a liability as an asset. That Apple didn’t opt to extend that migraine onto iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad is, in my opinion, a by-product of Adobe not making Flash run as well on the Mac as it does on Windows.

      Now as to actual open standards that Apple is moving WAY from, I would say pray tell. If anything, Apple’s culture is pretty pro standards, when they make sense from an actual problem/solution perspective, as everybody knows that the great thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.

      Otherwise, this is akin to a discussion about vitamins (you should take them, really) in the vitamins-aspirin-penicillin essentialness continuum.

    2. “In the case of the iPad, for example, someone could deliver a truly open tablet that runs multiple operating systems and thereby trounces the app availability that there is for the iPhone OS.”

      Its been tried and they have all failed. Maybe, shoulda, woulda, coulda does not translate into Apple needs to do this, whatever this is, pronto. The iPad will sell in huge numbers.

  10. With all due respect to Sebastian, my favorite cranky geek, he’s an old WinTel journalist who grew up during the age of an MIS-driven technology market. He believes in and worships a Windows model of computing that just doesn’t apply anymore. He also doesn’t get that the IT industry is now driven by consumer markets and that completely different dynamics apply here. This is why he keeps saying think like “tech history has shown that he who delivers the largest appscape wins”, the underlying implication being that software platforms where developers can wreck the most havoc win. This also explains why he keeps saying that Android will win the smartphone OS race; again, his head is stuck in an old model of commodity hardware and developer driven/controlled software platforms.

    In the new world, things like stability, branding, packaging and huge marketing campaigns matter much more to the customers that matter: consumers. And you don’t need to have every app on your platform, just 90% of them. At the end of the day, the great majority of developers out there could give a flip about the openness of the platform; what they care about is a platform that can make them money. Newsflash: Windows is a proprietary platform that has made developers billions of dollars over the past 20 years. Apple’s platforms may also be proprietary, and their business practices a bit more closed on top of that, but in the larger scheme of things, it doesn’t all matter to the extent Sebastian thinks it does.

    The iPad is the new model. Consumers just want their stuff to work. They don’t want to customize stuff, they don’t want to hack things, they don’t want to tweak things. They have more important things to do with their time. Up until now, even the traditional windows, icon, mice GUI has just been too complex for the great majority of people to master. This is why consumers took to simple, hosted apps via web browsers so passionately. The iPad is going to move all this to the next level. It is just a Macintosh with a UI that is even easier to use than a web app: a touch UI.

    Sebastian, you’re awesome, man. But get with the program. The platform with the most users wins; developers will go where the customers are. They could give flip how open or closed the platform is; they just want to make money. Until any other platform can prove that, developers will keep dealing with Apple. It is the only show in town.

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