Apple Should Open Its Kimono — Pronto

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.

Related GigaOM Pro Research (sub req’d):

With the iPad, Apple Takes Google to the Mat

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