Steve Jobs and Openness - Compatible or Incompatible?

Death is a tragedy, and a time for reflection, sympathy and reconciliation.

This has been manifest in the days since Steve Jobs died on the 5th of October, with words of remembrance spreading across the length and breadth of the Internet.

As a mark of respect to the deceased former Apple boss, Samsung and Google have decided to put off the imminent launch of the Nexus Prime, which was going to be the first smartphone to run the newest iteration of the Android OS.

When Tim Cook failed to match his "magical" predecessor at the launch of the iPhone 4S, there was sharp criticism at his dullness. This criticism transformed into deep sympathy just a few hours later, with the understanding that Cook and his team may have been troubled by the knowledge that their beloved mentor was drifting away.

The homepage of Apple, a huge profit-making corporation, stirred up emotions with a poignant picture of Steve Jobs in black and white on the sad day.

Openness and Future Innovation

My title is deliberately worded with "Steve Jobs and Openness", because like Julius Caesar, Steve Jobs is only going to become more powerful after his death.

Can the feelings of reconciliation at the passing of this powerful personality involve advocates of openness too? Let’s not forget, while Steve Jobs was the inspiration behind stunning innovations from Apple, he has shown limited inclination to support openness.

Apple's offerings tie hardware, software and services in a way that restricts developer freedom and interoperability. The OS X is linked to the Mac and the iPod won't work with any other service than iTunes.

Just around a month before Apple’s darkest day, Jobs wrote in his resignation letter, "I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it. And I look forward to watching and contributing to its success in a new role."

Steve Jobs, of course, isn’t around to smile over Apple’s brightest and most innovative days, but his inspiration and legacy of thinking different remain alive. His belief that you ought to be doing what you love has moved us. His ability to stir an emotional bonding with the products he inspired, combined with the sleekness in design were unmatched. He made Apple products natural extensions of ourselves, not least by the magical marketing skills of his cult personality.

Advocates of openness could learn from the depth of Apple’s different thinking, and the intensity of emotions that Steve Jobs brilliantly attached to its unique gadgets.

When you're talking about openness, however, you cannot ignore the fact that Apple has long had a complex stance towards it.

It helps to revisit the past, at times, with the hope that it can help define the future. When HTML5 was being promoted as an open standards replacement to Adobe’s Flash, Steve Jobs vigorously supported it and slammed Adobe for being "closed", ignoring criticism that Apple’s own software development was closed too.

While Apple’s operating systems do use open source components, the development work on their apps is strictly controlled. Apps cannot be developed and distributed without the payment of a fee to Apple and a subsequent approval. Apple had the choice between openness and tight controls; they chose the latter. This is in contrast to Google’s Android. Android development can be done by anyone, and apps can be sold via any marketplace, or individually, without a marketplace.

Jobs believed in stiff competition to bring out sparks of innovation, with the corollary being that openness dampened innovation.

Now that there's a possible opportunity for reconciliation, will Apple’s days ahead involve a more generous approach towards openness when it comes to software development?


Why would Apple move towards a more open operational environment for their devices? They have been able to convince the masses that they provide the best technology value while purposefully restricting the user experience with that technology to control and shape it into extremely high-margin money making systems for the success of their business. They provide less technology while charging far more for it--it's all about fancy design and marketing spin. They want to completely control that space and all of the business that occurs because of it. There is no reason for them to become more "open".
Apple customers enjoy spending their hard earned money on "cool" and expensive gadgets that work only in the specific way determined by their manufacturer. These same gadgets become obsolete in a short time to be replaced by even more expensive gadgets that customers desire even more. They innovate quickly and customers spend their money madly.
...I am not an Apple customer and have no desire to become one. I want no part of that foolishness.

By zman58

Openness is overrated, and comes from some silly notions about freedom promoted by such organizations as the Free Software movement. They think restrictions you agree with are still somehow a trample on freedom, which makes no logical sense. If I agree to something, it's within, not without, my freedom to choose for myself.

Also, I really don't get people's complaints about Apple controlling what gets into the App Store. It's their store ran on their servers. Don't web site owners control what gets published on their site? Don't physical store owners decide what gets sold in their stores? So why such a different treatment of the App Store?

I consider openness to be just a feature. Some products or development models have more of it, some less, but it is in no way the only thing by which to judge a product as good or bad. The "open vs. closed" thing might very well be a false dichotomy.

As for Apple, as its customer I actually would NOT want Apple to change. I would NOT want them to pursue more openness for openness sake, or to appease people calling for it on some flawed principle. Their closed approach is what allows them to be so different. You know the saying: "too many cooks spoil the soup". It applies perfectly here. By controlling everything from software to hardware Apple is able to deliver a consistent, cohesive and beautiful user experience that is also functional and powerful. And they obviously had the vision, from Steve Jobs, necessary to accomplish that. Compare that to the openness of the Linux mess.

I am an Apple customer, and unlike what the previous commenter believes, I did not buy my MBP just for the cool factor or how it looks like, but because of the entire package, the combination that as hard as I DID try I couldn't find among other laptops. That people buy Apple just because of their cool look is a silly, albeit common myth.

The only thing I don't like about Apple is its patent litigation, but then again all big corporations are playing that dirty game. It's not an indictment of Apple alone.

It's not about complaining about the App Store not being open - it's about what will work in the long term. How will iOS's and Android's stores compare - when one is highly restrictive, and the other much more open? I definitely agree about your analysis on the success of Apple being because they focus on what they do, without the mess of too many opinions. On the patent front, it feels sad to see Apple focusing heavily on this unhealthy means of competition.
By Abdullah Chougle

The problem with Apple having control over what it allows in its app store is that there's no alternate app stores for the iPhone.

To use your physical store analogy, if I don't like the wares in Walmart, or if I want something they don't sell, I'm free to leave and go to Target, or to the mall and one of the hundreds of stores there, to buy the product I'm interested in. I'm not confined to a single store in the real world.

In the Apple world, however, that's not the case. You're not allowed to install apps that don't come from the Apple app store (at least without "jailbreaking" it, which you're not supposed to do). So Apple has a monopoly on where you get apps for your iPhone/iPad. Luckily, we're not forced to buy these devices, and we have Android, but the point still stands, if you buy an iDevice, you're locked into Apple's excessive control over what you're allowed to do with it. So if you'd prefer to use a different navigation app than the one they provide, you're outta luck, and you can't just go to another store to get one.

To go back to the analogy, if you lived in a town where there was only one store for some odd reason, I think the local government would have every right to dictate to that store owner what he could and couldn't sell there, because otherwise the people have no real choice (let's assume the nearest neighboring town is a long distance away).

By Grishnakh

I said openness is overrated because those who advocate for it tend to put a focal point where it doesn't belong. They give openness the kind of primacy associated with freedom, as if it was a human right. And that's clearly overrating it because my freedom to choose isn't trampled on by a mere existence of options which might come with some limitations. At best openness is merely a characteristic of a given product, service or even persons in general, a feature, nothing more.

About your App Store related point, Apple is offering you a deal. They'll sell you the iPhone, but you must agree to only use their App Store. If that sounds like a bad idea to you then by all means don't buy it. They are not evil just because they made you an offer. You get to exercise your freedom to choose whether to buy or not. If you buy and then complain how evil Apple is for having a restriction on a product you *chose* to buy, you're being quite irrational.

That said, I disagree with patents, copyrights and other government intrusions into the normal functioning of a market based on agreements. These legal systems tend to distort the picture fair bit, and to the extent to which Apple relies on these government powers to seek advantage, I don't agree with them. However it has to be understood that pretty much every other company engages in that sort of thing as well (like patent litigation). The core problem is the system, namely the government, not any specific companies.

None of that changes the basic principle I described above though. You have the freedom to choose, and someone making an offer you might not like doesn't make that any less true.

Add new comment