Can Closed Work for Apple This Time?

By Josh Catone
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A recent poll in The Register asked who is more closed, Microsoft or Apple? A whopping 55% of respondents thought that dubious honor belongs to Apple (21% said Microsoft, and 24% said they were both equals in the matter).

Even though Apple’s current operating system is built on top of an open source UNIX base, and even though their web browser is built on the open source WebKit rendering engine, Apple has notoriously always been close. The most popular reason people perceived Apple as more closed than Microsoft in the Register’s poll was the end-to-end proprietary nature of their product line.

“Whether it’s OS X being wedded to the Mac, the iPod being dependent on the iTunes service, or iPhone software distribution being controlled via the Apple Store, there is a strong perception that openness is not always the biggest priority for Apple,” explains Dale Vile.

It is certainly true that Apple likes to retain complete control over their products. By only allowing OS X to run on hardware they create, for example, Apple not only controls the pricing of their products but they also limit the possibility of hardware incompatibility issues that degrade user experience. And if there’s one driving force behind all Apple products it is maintaining a high quality user experience.

This time around, the real battle for control of our computing lives might be taking place on the mobile platform and on the web. It’s less about Windows vs. Linux vs. OS X, and more about iPhone vs. Blackberry vs. Android vs. Windows Mobile. And as Farhad Manjoo wonders, “Hasn’t Steve Jobs learned anything in the last 30 years?”

“Watching Google and Apple carve out space in the mobile business, one can hardly avoid thinking that history is repeating itself. In the 1970s and ’80s, Apple created the first great personal computers. But because Apple closed its platform, it was IBM, Dell, HP, and especially Microsoft that reaped the benefits of Apple’s innovations,” wrote Manjoo recently in an article on “The Mac’s operating system ran only on Mac computers; Windows ran on lots of lots of different companies’ hardware. This made non-Apple computers both cheaper than Apple’s machines—competition between hardware manufacturers pushed down prices—and more useful, as third-party developers flocked to write must-have programs for Windows. Apple seems to be following a similar restrictive strategy with the iPhone.”

Manjoo theorizes that perhaps Jobs thinks that this time around people are more keen on user experience and minimization of headaches than they are concerned with openness. “An open platform is much more technically complex than a closed one,” says Manjoo, noting that open platforms have more technical problems because they have to play nice with a wider variety of technology, and that they attract unsavory developers (i.e., makers of viruses and spyware), all of which hurts end user experience.

However, as we noted in August, closed platforms often put developers at odds with the platform providers, which can ultimately drive developers toward alternatives. Applications are the life’s blood of any platform. So if closed platforms end up protecting user experience at the expense of maintaining a wide variety of helpful applications, then openness will eventually win.

If the Register’s poll is any indication of general sentiment, Jobs might have made another miscalculation and could pay for it in the long term. And, as CNET points out, Apple is starting to take some very Microsoft-like action against rivals to protect its monopolies. That’s a dangerous road for Apple to take and one that could shift public perception of the company, which is anecdotally very positive right now.

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  • Frak

    I have no issues with Apple being closed I have switched from a windows system about a year ago and I have had no issues with my MacBook Pro or my Ipod. I’d go buy the iPhone but ATT is a really bad carrier so I will hold off with Verizon. I think its like web development. If there are so many things you have to worry about then of course there would be problems and longer to market but they make sure their products work with each other and not third party apps. Imagine if in web development I only had to worry about using 1 browser for testing then everything would work but I have to worry about 3 and half the time IE throws everything out of wack. Apple can keep doing things the way they have been cause I’m pretty happy with the result.

  • Le Big Z

    you make a very good point there. i switchd to mac 2 years ago and i love the os to death.. but the hardware sucks so bad, everybody knows it. internal dvddrive went kaboom 1 month after the warranty went out. i have spilled a drink over my keyboard – new one 50 bucks. 3 usb slots. i went to buy some firewire stuff – now they say they wont continue that. there are illegal(!) possibiliets of running leopard on a pc.. guess i’ll have to try that one out.(google “leopard on pc”) after all, someday i’m going to want a fresher piece of hardware without speding over 1500 on it. thing is, im a student. i just dont have the money for it, even though i love it. i hope the economic crisis will hit them in a way it makes them rethink their distribution model.

  • Well said Frak!

    I switched to Mac just over 2 years ago and I’ve never looked back. I don’t have any problems with Mac being closed! I’d rather use a limited set of programs and get the job done on time and without stress than use a million programs that crash, aren’t fully compatible, lose my work, give me headaches and generally make me want to throw my machine out of the window!

    When I switched I was worried about not being able to get the programs I was used to or needed. But I’ve either got the same or better, for cheaper or free and they worker better.

    And as for the iPhone… It’s incredible! I can’t imagine ever owning a different phone, other than 3rd, 4th, 5th Gen. I would like to see some kind of mobile office type App but if I’m being honest, I never really used Word and Excel on my HP PDA running Windows Mobile.

    Apple is the full package, great products, great support, great software, all in one place. If you have a question or if on the rare occasion something breaks, you know where to go and advice is free, unlike the ridiculous prices most mainstream PC stores will charge for a quick look.

  • ionix5891

    Apple are gonna get whooped

    Google’s Android will do to the Iphone what the PC did to Macs

    by being more hackable and “open” than apples closed crap

  • Apple do very much keep everything within themselves, which is pretty bad, and the reason it will never beat the PC. As for their customer service, I think it is possibly the worst I have dealt with from any company. Their policy on covering up their security problems instead of being open about them and fixing them quickly leaves a lot to be desired, although they made a good step last week when they effectively told mac users to stop assuming they won’t get a virus because they are on a mac, and to install anti virus software.

    Also, as you say, lack of competition means you pay a premium for apple products, and then your hardware is compatible with a lot less 3rd party hardware afterwards.

  • Carstep

    I recently changed to Mac, but I’m not very satisfied with the stability of it. It makes as much trouble to develop with as Windows does. They both are closed developed programs and they both produce crashes. In my opinion all of the Systems we use now days crashes to often.

    Apple has less 3rd party programs, but almost all of them crashes 3-4 times daily. Windows has certain programs that run smoothly but after a while it crashes from itself. The only stable programs that I run successfully on both system were Java based applications.

    Unfortunately I’m not a Java developer but maybe once…


  • M. Johansson

    Uh, up until Android, phones were incredibly closed. In comparison to Symbian,
    The iPhone is definetly the most open (in a developer sense) phone availiable with the exception of Android phones. OK, Android is better, but I doubt that Android have the attention it has if it wasn’t for the fact that iPhone forced it’s need.

  • IceBrain

    Symbians phones are closed? I’ve downloaded and installed a open-source third party Python Interpreter for the S60 way before the iPhone appeared. Maybe you can’t modify the guts of the OS, but you can make and install whatever software you want without Nokia’a “permission”.

  • ultimazer1

    Being closed is what made Apple as successful as it is right now!
    Everything just works and that’s what people want.

    Of course, Apple will never beat PCs but should be the goal? They aim their products at those who agree with their ideas and principles and it does not look exactly as if people DON’T like it because their growing more and more.

    I’m perfectly happy with the situation but yeah, maybe they should find ways to open the “Apple sphere” a bit more …but without risking that all the crap happens which is going on on Windows. So I guess the way they handle it with the iPhone is actually very good and i don’t think Android and all that other stuff is gonna be “better”.

    Even if they should ever sell more than Apple – which I don’t believe will happen – who cares? What OS X and the iPod and iPhone are all about is the “simplicity” and beauty of the UI and that’s what people want. Period.

    Cheers, Florian

  • John

    Who cares?

    I have been using Macs since day one and have had very few issues compared to the PC’s my competitors use. I have started 4 highly successful companies and they all run on Macs. I am currently pouring Venture Capital into another company that runs nothing but Macs. I have even gone so far as to stipulate in the contracts that Macs must be used. Our productivity numbers show increased output and lower IT spending when Macs are the main platform. Feel free to think PC’s are superior simply because they are open (which is a complete misnomer). But my bank accounts would tend to differ.

  • bfrancis


    What made Apple as successful as it is right now was the iPod. Apple was hurting badly until the iPod was released and caught on (which was fast). From the late 90’s into 2001 they were being written off for dead. The 1st gen iPod software only worked on a Mac. I bet a number of people bought a Mac just so they could have an iPod.

  • dawgbone

    Sure didn’t take long for this to turn into an Apple love-fest.

  • Chris

    Jonathan Ive is a genius

  • I hope not. Apple is technically holding back advancements by substituting style over substance. Finding an open mp3 in the 40gig + range is really hard these days. My Iriver h340 hdd finally died and there is nothing like it around.

  • macpet

    Message to Farhad Manjoo, and all the other people out there who don’t get it. The results are in, and the Microsoft route of “open” systems didn’t work (viruses, malware, systems that struggle to maintain compatibility, lack of standards/control in software development etc etc). What if Apple actually got it right back then, and we’re just starting to get back onto a path that we should have gone down 20-plus years ago? This game isn’t over by a long shot and there is a very long road ahead. Farhad Manjoo and other analysts are looking in a distant rear-view mirror, instead of looking at what is happening now (increasing Mac sales in a stagnant PC market, domination by the iPod, stellar growth by the iPhone). Out there in user-land, people like what they see and are making the switch. A whole generation has grown up with technology and they are no longer willing to simply go along with being told by IT departments, or so-called “experts” what technology they should use.

    Sheesh, the logic that these analysts display is astounding. Apple already has an 8-year start in this quarter of the game (the iPod/iPhone-iTunes platform), so it’s a heck of a leap to think that Google can even ‘do a Microsoft’ in the first place. And what makes people think that just because Google makes a good search engine, they can make a decent phone! Besides, Android is hardly known outside the technorati, and Google doesn’t have the loyalty of developers in this space, the distribution networks, or even the device(s) to compete at this stage.

    Oh, and one more thing. Even if somehow, history does repeat and Google does do a Microsoft, I, and millions like me, will be very happy with our “closed” Apple system, thank you very much. Because at least we know it works!

  • I get paid to Use Macs and I can tell you – They do not just work. Any closed form of hardware and media always has issues with solutions ALWAYS costing $$$. If your fine with this so be it. And to think the Android platform is only a buzzword amongst the Technorati crowd is very misinformed. As a positive, I suppose having a Closed company like Apple around causes gems like to be created.

  • AdamC

    All those who comment as if they are macusers have never touch a mac in their lives. I don’t believe they know what they were talking about about apps crash 3 -4 times a day or the hard disk crashed after warranty – who are you guys trying to bull.
    The Apple system is the way to go, fast OS and pretty soon with graphic cards good enough for the gamers and the iPhone and iPod touch will continue to evolve and improve. And the most important factors that will put the iPhone ahead of its competitors is the apps store with its 10,000 apps and counting.. And with $25B in the kitty Apple will innovate much much better than all its competitors. The Apple of today is not the bungling and fumbling one of yesteryear.

  • Spankie

    How exactly is MS more open? WMA, WMV, Direct X, IE, Plays-For-Sure, Janus, etc., etc., etc. Windows itself is the most closed OS on the planet.
    Apple is embracing plenty of industry standard formats & protocols. MS does so kicking & screaming. If MS didn’t have it’s ass handed to it in the
    music arena there would be no room for anyone else to play. Apple is not stopping anyone from building hardware or software. MS needs to operate
    from a monopoly position. If they have to compete on a level playing field…they lose.

  • DC79

    I think the close/open source argument with respect to both Apple and Microsoft in one that feels drain out a bit. Anyone looking for a complete open source platform may go run over to Linux. End of story. People need to understand that we life in a capitalist consumer society which means that competition and business advantages are part of it. I have no problem with apple being close, as I am a web & print designer and Apple machines work out just fine for by business solutions. My friend Al who is a programmer tell me that you can code into OS X using X code, Cocoa and even Java. So there yo have it..


  • ultimazer1

    Exactly! …and now let history prove what we said about Apple :)


    It’ll be interesting how they react to the current economic crisis and I wouldn’t mind them making things a little cheaper…but price also symbolizes “value” and “quality” (and that’s what they want to convey) so I guess they will stick to their current attitude.

    oh, and to those who say their MACs crash and hardware fails: of course there are always some machines/parts that fail. In case of Apple products this is totally blown out of proportion though, as if one in five macs/iPods would fail one day after warranty ended. Because MACs hardly ever crash these single cases out of Millions of Apple customers are then perceived as “really bad quality” or whatever.

    Geez, my PC crashed on me once a day. My MAC never does except when I try really really hard by firing up all Apps I got at the same time or whatever.


  • I can build a PC. Not Allowed to build a Mac – enough said.

  • Jordan West

    A big difference between now and the 1970s: Millions of people already own the iPhone.

  • Anonymous

    It’s ridiculous to talk about openness between MS and Apple. Like somebody mentioned it’s Linux that is open. Stability is achievable by many means. The thing is you have a single mac, provided by apple (in different flavors), and you have a millions of combination of random hardware available for the PC, not all combination are stable people! Want a cool stable system, with nice user interface that just works? PAY, for a mac, for a well built PC, for software that is tested to work with it, the key word is *PAY*, pay much, much than it’s worth it, and go worship the company for providing you with a good solutions. No offense, but worshiping a company that charges you much more than it needs you is just plain silly, and making excuses that this is a needed level or a philosophy is eaven more sillier. Personally : i made up a Pc of components, installed Linux. How much time did it take? it took some time … but it’s worth it! You are not technical enough, or you don’t want to spend time, you show the MONEY, it’s that simple, but again, no offense, worshiping a company pr another for it is stupid.

  • Hierophant

    When Steve Jobs came back to Apple and killed the official hardware licensing program, I vowed to never buy another of their computers. So far I haven’t missed anything. I have iTunes and Safari installed on my Vista computer and absolutely hate the interfaces of both. The applications that inherit my the interface of my chosen operating system are a lot better in my opinion.

    I always say that Windows gives the most freedom in both hardware and software choice. I can use all the open source software and all the commercial software without having to run emulators or programs that claim they aren’t emulators but are…

    I’ll stick with the more open solution instead of paying gobs of money to feed a man’s ego. Granted Windows isn’t as open as Linux but its a lot less annoying, at least for me.


    I’ve used macs for 18 years. I’ve owned 6 or 7 over that time, and my 6 year old laptop is still going running the latest OS. I don’t recognize any of the gripes that the Mac haters have. And why such hate anyway? I don’t get it.

    Argument one: you run a company and need to make a profit to stay alive and keep paying you and your staff, what would YOU do? Give away every secret? Does any one here not buy Coke or Pepsi because its not an open-source recipe?!?! I think you could think of other variations on this theme… The excitement, heck – the innovation! – comes from the cat and mouse chase on both sides!

    If your happy with WinTel then enjoy it (i dont tho), and *nix, however personally I think I’ve got the best of all worlds with my MacTel and I really do enjoy it. I run my macpro as, well, everything. Server, mail server, VNC, video editing, capture, word processing, graphics, msn, web browers, VMware windows, and its great, fast and reliable. Please dont tell me it’s not, I am not saying a wintel or nix cant do this, but my mac can aswell, and it is great at it.

    Be kind!