The Apple exception: where open innovation theory breaks down

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Over the last few weeks, I've noticed more folks pointing out a paradox that has been driving me nuts. As many companies embrace open innovation and culture, there is one incredibly successful holdout: Apple. Three articles on the subject here, here, and here.

I suspect few people would claim Apple has an open culture-- stories about secrecy at Apple are legendary. You could argue that Apple has done some impressive experiments in open innovation-- most notably their iPhone App Store. But even their open stuff seems decidedly, well... closed.

I've noticed Google has been making a much bigger deal about their openness recently, and you have to imagine that part of the reason for this is to differentiate themselves in the consumer market from Apple.

Yet, having lived in the open source world for the last 10+ years, and knowing more than my fair share of open source true believers, I can tell you that no company can make more folks put their beliefs aside for a shiny new object quicker than Apple.

Wade Roush offers one interesting interpretation in this post:

"The paradox—and it may be one that goes to the heart of digital-age capitalism—is that Apple’s style of closed innovation results in technology that is so conducive to open innovation."

I'm a starry-eyed Apple lover as much as the next guy. I'd feel lost without my MacBook Pro and my iPhone. But I'm also an open source true believer, and I feel kind of guilty sometimes about how much I love my Apple stuff.

So two questions for you:

1) Does the quote above, that Apple products inspire open innovation even if they weren't created in an open way, give us an easy way out? Can we still love Apple and consider ourselves open source true believers at the same time?

2) How can something so closed be so darned good? How do we explain the Apple exception?

I'd love to hear what you think.






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Dru's picture

You are correct, the WebKit has it's roots in KHTML but has diverged so much from that codebase that WebKit is in essence and entirely new engine, from which other browsers are built.

1. Yes, I know about OLPC and Sugar, the source code is tinkering freedom, I do not disagree. But at the same time, you are talking about interpreted code. The truth is, the iPhoneOS offers you the exact same opportunity without the AppStore barrier of entry. It's called HTML. They even give away DashCode for free with all the tools and templates to tinker away.

2. No, Apple does not have to approve the app. You can do adhoc deployment to up to 100 devices without going through the App Store. It's not as easy, but you can do it, within the terms of the developer kit.

3. As for your last point, I guess I understand your point, but at the same time, I look at Windows. It could be argued that the massive success of Windows as a platform originates with the tinkerers. If you look at the meteoric rise of Windows 3.1, and compare it to the timeline of Visual Basic, you find that they coincide. It could be argued that tinkering, and Visual Basic provided that catalyst. Visual Basic was not free. IT was also not a C based language that was very approachable to many tinkerers that lacked a traditional or formal training in programming. Many of those apps were garbage, some did destroy Windows installations with unintended behaviors. Giving away code is nothing new, I've been doing it for many years, but to those of us that write code for a living and do it as a hobby, a $99 barrier to entry is nothing.

Robert Swift's picture we all think we know better than Apple? don't like their approach then don't use their products... alternative would be to accept Apple products at face value, highly usable and productive and in my personal opinion well optimised for the target audience...

...oh, and how open is open? being a developer using Apple Mac OS X means the free and truly fantastic Xcode, tonnes of documentation including access to style guides that are almost certainly the result of countless hours of Apple funded usability testing blah blah...

"my iPhone won't multitask", "Safari isn't open source"... boo hoo, why are these things such an issue for people? Mac OS X is built on a Unix base, there is no reason why sufficiently motivated people couldn't take open source products and make pretty much the exact same operating system as Apple have, except that it'd be done by programmers and not would be highly unlikely to have the design aesthetic, usability and "what the end customer really wants" steer - and for this reason, not the use of open source software, I believe it would fail to gain the traction with hardcore techies or the most computer illiterate user...

Just my two pennies - Robert...

relliker's picture

Apple takes what has always been open, redesigns it for non-geeks and makes bucketloads of cash from people who just want tools for their work that just work.

Take bsd. Apple took a copy of an open OS, closed it and covered it up with a nice gui. To avoid the hardware incompatibility issues that Linux still has, Apple chose to support particular hardware only and fixed the drivers and apps just for those. Then it called the hardware Apple hardware and only supported those.

Same with the iphone. It took what was once an open OS, stripped it down, kept it closed, made it simple for non-geeks to use, put it in a phone and voila', bucketloads of cash.

Ipad? Same thing. How many years have tablets been around? Apple took an "open" idea, designed around it to make it look innovative (and avoid patent disputes), kept it's phone's once open now closed, stripped OS and touched it up a bit (i.e. stripped it some more). Made it easy to use by non-geeks and voila' x 3, more cash.

Apple just steals innovative ideas (just like it did with Xerox's windowing system and like Gates did to Jobs), redesigns them a bit enough to re-patent them as its own, closes them and sells them to non-geeks. And before the tech-savvy shoot me for saying Apple goods are for non-geeks, please know that the ratio of non-techies to techies is probably somewhere in the region of 50,000:1. i.e. for each one of you who can get inside MacOS's hood, there are 50,000 who swear by the same OS without ever having left the shiny front-end and know shit about computing.

I know what I'm saying because I work for a company that makes bucketloads of money from simple software targeted at non-tech-savvy folks. Nothing innovative but so user-friendly, with idiot-proof touches everywhere in the UI design that it sells like hotcakes for its ease of use, not for its innovation. In fact, it sells millions of copies when there is similar FREE software that works just as well but the non-techies choose ours for its simple interface.

So there's no secret about Apple's success. The pattern is always the same.

Find the next obscure device that makes sense but doesn't sell. Apple will copy it, redesign something to be able to re-patent it and makes it popular by making it attractive for the average joe who knows shit about technology.

ross's picture

First, to answer the questions...

1) Does the quote above, that Apple products inspire open innovation even if they weren't created in an open way, give us an easy way out?
Um, no! How is it possible to have open innovation on a closed platform? (Hint, it's not possible) You might have 'innovation', but it won't be 'open'.
Can we still love Apple and consider ourselves open source true believers at the same time?
Um, no! You have compromised your ideals and been tempted away by a shinny bit of kit.

2) How can something so closed be so darned good? How do we explain the Apple exception?
The false assumption here is that open-source will always produce a 'better' product. The reason why apple products are good is because they have enough dedicated, passionate and talented people working to produce the products. (but over the long term, it will harm consumer choice, inhibit innovation, create a monopoly and result in slower development)

Why is Open Source better?
I think this is a key question. There are a lot of people that would argue that it is better from pragmatic reasons, that is - because it produces 'more innovation' or 'better products'.

However, I would argue that open source is better simply because it is open! That is to say, it is morally better, but not necessarily pragmatically better (at least in the short term, or from the perspective of one company or country).

Natanael_L's picture
Community Member


This is also the arguments of the free software movement, and a big part of the "free software vs. open source" issue.

The people who also agree with these arguments should also consider using the term "free software" a little more often, or at least put some kind of emphasis on freedom when speaking about open source software.

Tech geek!

Unidentified's picture

The day that I can't run open source code (currently CYDIA/ROCK repos) on my iphone is the day I get an Android (if android works with open source/free code).

Just like Microsoft on the one hand screams about piracy, and with the other let's millions of people get away with it so that it keeps other "free" alternatives from getting a foothold at the grass roots level. Apple weakly locks down it's products so that the "average" user isn't tempted to twiddle with the defaults and create a messy system. It keeps the average computer/phone user from installing crapware and making their system unstable and unrealiable. This is why most apple product users love their product, it is simple, it does a few things really well and reliably.

For those of us who like the features of the Apple product and want to "jailbreak" it or "hackintosh" it, we can!

Apple won't admit that they allow such things and *must* make a token effort to stop it so that they can claim (if need be) that they protect their EULA's and copyrights and trademarks and such. I don't *think* that they truly have any intent of completely locking people out of hacking their systems. They surely could do that if they so chose.

Also, I am not against commercial licenses and closed source development. But, I am against data held hostage and extortion. But I don't get that from my iPhone. I can load and open music/pictures/e-mail/calendars/documents from any source. I can send those contents or sync those items in many ways with many different providers. And I could do this even if I hadn't jailbroken my device.
I pay for the continuing service from AT&T, but I can cancel that contract and continue to use the iPhone as an iTouch with GPS/WiFi/Camera etc... forever, with no continuing fees. Nothing evil about that.

mathew's picture

You need to distinguish between Apple the maker of Macintosh computers, and Apple the maker of iPhone, iPod and iPad.

The Mac has always been extremely open, in the sense that it has been well documented, with defined file formats and protocols, and anyone could develop for it. In the OS X era, it has been based on a lot of open source software (some created by Apple), and on open protocols and file formats (ditto).

The iPhone, iPod and iPad, however, are firmly nailed shut. That's why no matter how good they are, I won't touch them. I think you should feel fine about your Mac, but feel guilty about your iPhone.

I also think that in the long term, a closed platform can never win against an open multi-vendor platform, and that the iPhone will become a tiny niche compared to Android.

Kwang's picture

Hi Chris - Just got your email feed about this article.

Actually yesterday I just posted a contrary view, i.e., that Apple's secrecy may be hurting them in some areas. Tell me what you think?

Lest you think I'm one of these anti-Apple folks, that's not true. Over the years I've bought a lot of Apple gear, and I also run linux for statistical work.

Best wishes


Unidentified's picture

I read through all the posts with interest because I was interested in the question raised. After a while, though, the image that kept resounding in my head was of a highly contentious religious (or ideological) group that, intolerant of any deviation from a peculiar and tightly defined "straight and narrow," continues to divide and divide into smaller and smaller (and more and more irrelevant) sub-groups!

sean's picture

I'm with you on the guilt trip. I love my imac, ipod, etc. I can't imagine using another portable audio player. Yuck. But I'm always the first of anyone I know to promote open source.
The difficulty I see with the situation is strictly the hardware. Software, if managed properly, can be developed in an open environment, and to some degree apple even supports this. The issue comes with the hardware. How do a bunch of everyday people join together to design, test and manufacture hardware? It doesn't seem feasible. I do agree great design requires a great mind, but I wouldn't go as far as saying it is one mind. I believe there is a lot of teamwork involved in the apple design process. Nonetheless, how else would we have such hardware if a company like apple didn't exist?

Don Babcock's picture

When I first got into mobile development, having believed all of the hype about the riches just waiting in the mobile market on millions of handsets, I had a rude awakening when I first tried to go to market. You see, I couldn't build an app for a phone and distribute it to users of the target device. In fact, even the make of the device couldn't. That was totally locked up by the telecoms in the same way that Ma Bell used to require everyone to buy their equipment from them before the wathershed Carterphone case. See if you want the unabridged saga.

Apple had the clout and the carrot in the iPhone to finally get one of the telecoms to "cave" and do business without having absolute control of the device. They OPENed the door and now the telecoms are slowly but surely being relegated to the carriers they are. They still have way too much gatekeeper influence but the mold has been broken.

Let's consider what it means to be open. If that means doing the best job of putting the cookies on the lower shelf and providing an easy way for anyone to play then Apple has no peer in the mobile world. I had given up on mobile development after Cingular informed me that to get the necessary "premium" code signing certificates to allow my Bluetooth aware app to run it would cost me $5000/year just to apply. They still might or might not "accept" my app. Of course, they justified that using all manner of hand waving citing the need to "protect" their customers and their network. In contrast, Apple did the hard work of crafting an environment that would allow developers of varying experience to play "safely" (yes that may well include one app at a time running) and could thereby tap into the vast pool of creativity that NO private company can possibly match.

At the end of the day, if you want to measure open-ness by how many and how easily other folks can "play" and innovate then Apple has no peer. They've provided the superb tooling, infrastructure, and support that only a private company can while achieving openness where it counts from my perspective. The real measure of open-ness is how easily two guys in a garage can take the offering, innovate and realize real return on their investment of time. Apple has set the bar. If you insist on defining openness as letting everyone into Apples corporate boudoir and internal strategies then I think you have a skewed view of openness and one which in real terms is unusable. That kind of openness only leads to "too many cooks spoiling the broth."

The others (Google et al) have begun to address the shortcomings. They've all said "me too" with their attempts to copy iTunes and the App Store. Where they are sorely lacking is in coherent development tooling. You won't find the equivalent of Xcode and in particular the Interface Builder available for any of the other platforms. I'm a Java fan and have been for years but Java mobile development is PAINFUL compared to iPhone development because of the poor quality of the tools. Once again, I score Apple has being more "open" because they've put real development within reach of more modestly skilled programmers. I'm a latecomer to the Objective-C party and had been diss-ing C in favor of Java for years until I discovered OC. It took maybe two weeks to a month to make the transition and I'm sold. I've even found it easy enough to teach to folks with little more than advanced web development skills. So if it comes down to real accessibility to the common man, you can't beat Apple's mobile offerings. The learning curve and support is just so much better than anything else out there.

So if openness is practical, realizable access then Apple is the most open mobile development option available today. I think that is the true definition of openness. Asking for access into the inner corporate boudoir of Apple is merely nosey voyeurism calling itself a desire for "openness." Apple's approach is like finely sharpened Samurai blade crafted by a skilled artisan. The kind of "openness" that many seem to want would turn their product (at best) into a heavy and bloated broadsword as it tried to be all things to all people. I much prefer Apple's "blade." It's just a better tool overall.

Peris's picture

Re. Objective-C: Let me get this straight: given a choice today, you would use objC over Java (for an OSX app, e. g.)? Care to explain why? (If you use Eclipse, never mind--I have my answer)

Per Håkansson's picture

1) It's hard and most people don't have the time to learn!
2) It will not be as nice as an 'BMW' (or whatever you think is a nice car)
3) Most people want to travel with it, not work on it.
4) Most people give a d... about open source or 'private source' :)
5) Apple are like Coke, dam good building a 'good feeling' around the product, even if it is not the best for everything.

OK, this has little to do with open source lovers like 'us' (at least I try to be one as much as I can!). Fully 'open source' is hard, at least harder then Mac or Windows, you have to put your soul into it (and a lot of time). Even if I try, I can't spend that much time to keep up with it. But, moving from PC to Mac make me feel better. I feel myself closer to the 'make'-command :) I agree that's not 'open sourced' in a pure way, but it is as close to the pure 'open source' feeling as I have time and knowledge to be.

As someone already mention, Mac OS X feels more open source then Windows, even if it's not true. Thats the strange part, like helping the 'little guy' :) instead of going mainstream Windows. Stupid, yes, but it help me sleep better. I don't have the time/knowledge to go full open source, thats why I only moved to Mac. If I had the energy and time, I would love to been pure 'open sourced'.

Unidentified's picture

Apple (mac) has an " open source" operating system,but you must be able to compile all the parts of it your self ,and it only works on specific hardware types.Also it only contains a basic os. none of the better mac desktop apps. Do you think Apple is also using these developers to make apps for it's iphone,etc ?. I believe it is called pure darwin.

Gnuku's picture

An open source system is like diesel car. slower, it needs long time to appreciate its performance.
a closed system, like apple, is like a Gasoline car. they quickly shine, make some noise (especially with nitro) and run fast, but only on the short term (yes 30 years is short term for a company).
on the long-term diesel go further, is stronger and live longer:

"Harder, Better, Longer, Stronger ... tatatata"

I think within 10-20 years we will all understand the difference between open vs Apple-close-style system.

MikeD's picture

From their beginnings, Apple has always been about "Ease of Use". Just that over time the general public have awakend to what is actually useful technology for them. The age of Geek domination is over because the general public is spending as much time on their computers, but the difference is they aren't sitting around tinkering. It seems that Geeks can't stand complex technology made easy to use. The emotional tirades of a lot of Geeks proves it. Even more frustrating to Geeks is that he general public is much more savvy and can see what works for themselves on their own without geek intervention.

I thought Geeks were all about tinkering? So because Apple has a closed system and the fact that they have to Jailbreak or hack is a problem? I thought that was their mantra?

But Android is all the rage because its so open and easy to manipulate in ways a Geek lusts for? Hmmm sounds like the pot calling the kettle black. Because the Geeks are ranting about "make my life easier" ... hmm isn't that what most people want? Y'know like when people buy the iPhone because of how useful it is and the huge ecosystem and services that grew around the iPod, over the yearswhich benefited the iPhone and more services came about and now iPad is also benefiting. Clearly too many Geeks do not understand business.

Geeks need to grow up and understand that people buy what they buy for functionality. If your job depends on a technology and you have to be as efficient as possible, you will not want to be tinkering because time is money.

The whole Multitasking argument didn't help Palm. the whole removable battery argument didn't kill the iPhone because only 3% to 5% (NPD facts) of people actually go out and buy extra batteries for these devices. Geeks need to stop arguing Geek points to the general public because especially Android fans are turning out to be the new snooty tech folk.

The issue here is Geeks just like anybody wants to be catered to. It has nothing to do with people are stupid or not real Geeks.

There are pros and cons to either open or closed. Choose what you like and be happy.

Back in the day, all of the phones had their own interfaces from different manufacturers. Fast forward to today the Geeks who claim they promote freedom want every phone to run the same OS, just under the guise of different handset makers. I think they are just working their way to the same point as Geeks claim Apple is, just from a different angle.

To quote a comment I read on another forum from a pro-Android user: "We are Android, resistance is futile"

I'm sure that we could swap Apple or Microsoft or RIM in there too right? What Apple knows is that there are a lot of people that want what they have to offer and to sell 50+ million iPhones proves they are on to something.

Pick what works for you and stop worrying about elitist on open or closed platforms. Technology is about achieving your personal tasks at hand.

Unidentified's picture

You wouldn't know it from your rantings, but Apple actually ships a ton of open source code.