The Apple exception: where open innovation theory breaks down

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An apple wrapped in fencing

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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Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)


Open thrives where there's a high overlap between user and tinkerer.

No community could build something as gorgeous as the iPhone; it requires the singular vision of a beautiful fascist, and the resources of a gigantic company, and a world full of users who would happily trade simplicity and certainty for the ability to tinker. There will always be a place for such products, and that's fine.

But no beautiful fascist could create something as amazing as Drupal: an open architecture CMS that builds billions of dollars of shared value, that so far surpasses traditional CMSes. The ecosystem of Drupal plugins grows because tinkerers are free to use and improve. Sure, there's less money to be made, but everybody benefits -- for free.

What happens when an open ecosystem and a closed ecosystem go head-to-head, on roughly equal footing? In the war between Apple and Google, we're about to find out.

"What happens when an open ecosystem and a closed ecosystem go head-to-head, on roughly equal footing? In the war between Apple and Google, we're about to find out."

It depends a lot on the enviroment. If the open and the closed ecosystem is equal, has comparable "user bases" and "developer bases", the open system will win.
The issue is that in a world with things as horrible as software patents, the two ecosystems can't compete equally, since the closed system can pull strings that the open one can't just cut off.

And I hate the title - "The Apple exception: where open innovation theory breaks down". What breaks down? The assumption that great things only can be created in collaboration?
Then you are making a false assumption, and possibly dangerous if it spreads. The major reason is that when companies like Apple comes by, we'll loose supporters.

Great things are created when great ideas are recognized and being explored, and where great minds are given the chance to make something out of it.

The thing is that this is much more likely to happen when the enviroment is open to anybody and everybody, then it is inside a "anti-transparent" company like Apple - but sometimes the companies succed and manages to find the right people and put them together.

Quick summary - the internet is a better tool to find people with great ideas and put them together then a company with strict rules, even though there are exceptions for both.

The ability for companies like Apple to produce great things are not a reason for us to go weak and start doubting that free and open source software is great.

This is a great topic, I really believe the Apple exception needs more thought.

Having said that, I fundamentally disagree with Roush's entire post and the quote in particular. How exactly is Apple technology "conducive to open innovation"? I really don't know what is "open innovation" he refers to.

As per Apple App Store, that's a walled garden if there ever was one. I really would not consider it open.

Nevertheless, this is an important topic indeed. I think that Greg is spot on - the superior user experience which draws people in is easier to build in a close, centralised manner. Or rather, given the relative immaturity of the open platforms (such as Android), we are about to find out whether closed innovation is only the faster but not the exclusive path to that coveted "state of awesomeness".

It will also be a test of the open platforms. So far, there has been precious little attention to user experience design in the open source to appeal to the mass market. I am somewhat encouraged by noticing few enterprise technology open source projects that are taking this element into consideration. But as Greg has pointed out, the game is on…

Really, what we're talking about is short-term fragile vs. long term robust innovation. When you have massive concentrations of resources combined with an autocrat, you can achieve amazing things quickly... but then they're dependent on the whim and ambition of the autocrat... Jobs.

The atlternative, evolutionary innovation, is sloppy, stop-start, two steps forward one step back, etc. But the power and resources are distributed, it's grass roots (i.e. you pull it out in one place, and it sprouts back up somewhere else). It always takes longer, but, if weed-filled gardens are any indication, it ALWAYS wins in the end.

Couple things. First, I'd agree that Google is more "open" than Apple. But are they truly open? I mean they have some legendary secrecy going on themselves. So they put out a few very open things, great. That does make them more open. But I still think you have to frame the argument differently...don't pit "Apple" against "Google", pit the iPhone against Android (and I say Android and not Nexus One on purpose here).

While I love me some open, I don't see Google winning. The App Store certainly isn't open by any reasonable definition, IMHO. The only GOOD truly open projects I've seen to run on the iPhone require the thing to be jailbroken, which I consider a major problem. But is that necessarily "bad"? I'm not so sure it is. I'm not sure they haven't stumbled upon a better way to provide a thriving environment and market for user applications that run on a mobile device. You certainly can't argue with the results so far. Can Google find a way to compete? The jury is obviously still out. I'm skeptical, but then I would have said Apple would have been CRAZY to put the limitations on the App Store that they currently have, too. But it's working. We have very rich apps that are inexpensive for the consumer yet making the publishers a pile of money. Hard to argue with that model, honestly.

I think Greg is right on in his comparison. The problem is understanding the what and why of the things that work versus those that don't. I mean when you see highly technical items like the Linux kernel and C compilers come out of open source along with some other pretty killer applications like Firefox, one WANTS to think that anything is possible. But it's obviously not that clear.

Given just how successful the iPhone and App Store (in the face of such a HUGE problem like the AT&T exclusive!) have been, well, I'd sure love to see Google "win." But that's going to be asking quite a bit.

The thing that worries me most is that Apple has such a wide appeal, from fanboy to grandparent. They've got the bully pulpit and they're deliberately introducing products that are more and more closed, hiding behind "this way, we can ensure a perfect user experience". I worry that their products' closed nature will throttle a whole generation of tinkerers. The tinkerers that will be tomorrow's thought-leaders.

I love open source and I have spent much of the last ten years making a living by promoting open source software. But my company uses Macs exclusively for desktops and I recently bought an iPhone 3GS that I'm very happy with.

The reason we use Apple products is that they combines the best of Linux with the convenience of Windows. I don't have time to tinker with cups to get a printer to work, and then find that I can't easily use all of its features. It is much easier just to download the OS X driver from the vendor website. But its BSD base allows me to run tons of open source software, and we have an employee at my company that is an admin for the fink project which ports GNU/Linux software to Darwin (and we encourage him to use company time to help maintain it).

But I have no desire to own an iPad. I hate the development experience on the iPhone (I spend more time sorting our certs than I do messing with code). But then again, my dealings with Android haven't been much better. I can't even see what apps are available in the Android marketplace, outside of the top 25 paid and free, without owning a handset. Kinda makes the buying decision difficult.

But the fact is that the user experience on desktop Linux is lacking - and not due to the software. There is a place for a company to impose a Jobs-like focus on usability to say, the Gnome desktop (perhaps it is Canonical) but at the moment there really isn't a business reason to do so. Until that happens I don't see a Linux desktop being able to compete with what Apple offers.

I think you hit it spot on. I'm experiencing the exact same thing: Macs for desktop work (fantastic combination of usability and UNIX tools readily at hand) and Linux on all the servers. No tinkering on both platforms - it just works.

Or I guess more precisely, over what kind of time frame are we looking? For Apple, the point that Greg made in the first response is probably a key one. In the short-term (which is a decade-plus, in this case) a "beautiful fascist" rescued Apple from the dead and built a following the likes of which other companies would sell their grandmothers to get even a pale imitation. But what happens when that key individual goes?

That kind of very strong centralizing, controlling leader-figure may find it extremely hard to promote the kind of subordinates and thinkers who can replace them when they go. And being human, they're going go at some point. I was struck by a comment in an article about the Apple townhall meeting after the iPad launch that Jobs takes questions from employees who were brave enough to risk "taking one between the eyes". That might have been a rhetorical flourish, but it speaks to a style of communication that makes great copy but maybe not for an open or honest give-and-take.

Long term, can they sustain that magic touch, when so much of it seems to center not in the company's culture, but in one individual leader? It's possible there's a strong, capable team of near-equals there, but pop quiz -- name one of them.

Any program without a maintainer that know what to let into the code and what not to will fail somehow.

A company with a leader that know what the users want will succed. A company with a leader that don't will go bankrupt.

An open source software project who's maintainers know what the users want will succed. An open source software project who's maintainers don't will be forked if somebody comes along, like the code base and thinks that the project can be managed better.

A lot of programs are based on something else, maybe even something that wasn't intended for the current use. And a lot of successful projects have different leaders now then when they started.

The key issues are these: How do you find somebody who can lead your software project? How do you handle delegation of tasks? How do you handle replacing people? How do you handle ideas from others?

I think Cynic is spot-on. It seems to be a comparison between the "single innovator" and a collaborative, open innovation group. Sure, there will always be creative and technical geniuses who work mostly on their own and produce things that dazzle us all. But when you get those kind of people to work together with others (of varying skill levels), in the long run, you're going to build better widgets.

So maybe the real question is... beyond the central obvious figure (Jobs)... does Apple keep "genius creators" happy for very long? I can't imagine most innovative, intelligent people would enjoy working in a dictatorship.

There is another angle, which is that the desire to tinker has a bell curve to it. Early adopters may tinker more, then the middle folks don't care as much, but at a time in the future, when what was special is now commonplace, the need to tinker comes back stronger.

From what I know and <a href="">have read about iPhone and Android application development</a>, I think they have both painted themselves in to a corner. Android's corner is bigger and will take longer to hit, but it will come.

So, we're aware that iPhone enables developers to reach consumers with smaller scale, smaller priced applications. When you take 100 people, 80 of them are going to only want something that works, and that is Apple's market. The sustainability problem is, the remaining 20 people are going to include the innovators that will one day replace Apple. They are either the actual inventors or the people who adopt the new invention first, bringing the rest of the 80 along That is a problem that happens along side the problem of Apple being unable to support a continuously growing developer community with extremely closed tools and storefront processes.

Similarly, Android is going to see a big uptake because they come close to gaining from the free/open source software model. However, there are two things going against them. Currently, they appear to have a different fork for each vendor with an Android-based phone. Those hardware vendors are still putting their energy in differentiating their Android on their phone. We don't know (yet) how far off from the mainline those various Andoid forklets are, but that will come back to bite everyone.

The other issue is the development environment. Android is a Linux kernel plus a virtual machine, with apps running in the VM. Everything that already exists in FOSS needs to be ported to run on Android, with varying degrees of hassle. Add that to the customization layers the hardware vendors put on it, and you have a single market already fragmented beneath the surface, with a higher barrier for developers.

By comparison, Maemo is written on a Debian base as a relatively thin telephony/work environment. When I want to get my favorite GNOME or KDE application running on my phone, I'll be far, far closer to running it under Maemo than I would be getting it to run in Android.

My prediction is, over the not-very-long-horizon the mobile OS will be a commodity, and the one that is built best to follow the open source way is the one that we'll use on more of our phones.

We can all see what is happening to Windows lowered acceptance now that its champion in the eyes of the users Bill Gates has left the technology leader job. The same thing happened when Jobs was ousted from Apple and grew back when he returned. This will only happen to Apple again if Steve decides to quit.

Superior UNIX desktops have been around since the early 80s now morphing into Linux ones, but that hasn't let your 20% replace Windows or MAC desktops.

The other factor. The one that kept IBM alive when UNIX knocked it off its 30 year perch, allowed Apple to limp along without Steve, and sustains Microsoft despite its bad vista and security problems, is vested interest from the shareholders. They are the reason a company slows innovation choosing instead to repackage and repackage old technology with smarter user interfaces.

I hate to say it but a sustained economic downturn could be the only factor that would allow your 20% to gain reasonable market share with a truly innovative product. Like interactive conversational voice instead of old fashioned keyboards and pointer clicks.

"We don't know (yet) how far off from the mainline those various Andoid forklets are, but that will come back to bite everyone."

"We"? Speak for yourself, man, I have the codebases for most of the Android devices in the world lying around my home tree at the moment :)

It's not pretty. Android feels very quasi-open source; you get a lot of big code dumps with no proper co-ordinated development effort, there's no real 'Android community' collaborating with Google in developing Android. The 'shape' of Android hacking is, oddly, very much the shape of Windows Mobile hacking - little isolated groups of people working on particular projects with limited communication or collaboration between them. Releases in 7zip files in forum threads, and stuff.

Indeed, Apple is not. Apple technology is has always been closed source and I'm sure they would even go as far as paying people to stop tinkering with their devices. I would liken Apple technology running apps it normally should not to poor product design not "conduciveness to open innovation". The iphone has been made to do a lot of stuff it was not intended for but the underlining fact is that it had to be jail-broken for this to happen. That in no way spells "open" to me. What is paradoxical is that we go "woohoo" for jail-broken apps on the iphone but fail to acknowledge (be alarmed?) that the architecture is a buggy one. Is that what great technology should be? If you ask me Apple is to be the exception to mediocrity.

The story of the iPad is NOT about a ghee-wiz tablet!

The iPad introduces a new computer chip to run on, one that Apple owns and controls. From the iPad Tech Specs

"1GHz Apple A4 custom-designed, high-performance, low-power system-on-a-chip "

A while ago there was speculation about Apple getting into the chip market when they obtained somebody from IBM's chip line and their reasoning is to be able to more tightly optimize the OS and applications for the hardware.

The downside means they are even MORE closed than others because while *Unix's can be installed on x86, 64bit, and more systems than you can shake a stick at, this one is all under Apple's control.

If Apple is able to make it run faster, cooler and more efficiently then this will likely show up in their iPod and iPhone type consumer products. If they go well enough there, then laptops and desktops are to come next.

This will shut out companies like PyStar from being able to take generic equipment and slap OS X on top of it.

Apple is handcuffing people with fuzzy handcuffs. From the outside it looks warm, but inside it still handcuffs you to the bed.

That's wrong, Apple is not introducing a new chip. It is actually a SoC produced by Samsung :

I didn't see that before, thanks for the clarification/update.

Emphasis on the word "produced". It's being manufactured by Samsung to Apple's specification.

<em>"Apple is handcuffing people with fuzzy handcuffs. From the outside it looks warm, but inside it still handcuffs you to the bed."</em>

I've noticed that some people seem to like that.... and are apparently, quite happy to pay for the privilege.

Other folks are busily toiling away crafting fuzzy handcuffs...

I think this paradox could be explored in the way that Apple products are geek products for dummies with a good design, and IHM very easy to use. And open source are tools created by geek for the geeks with a poor design, and a line code interface.

When you take Linux distribution and polish it to look and feel like "eye candy" it will take a new comer to Linux world probably 2 weeks or so until you figure that out. You can run it on a cheaper hardware with excellent performance ($500).

Apple will cost you $1500 for the same, you can't upgrade it, until you replace with a new shiny white i... whatever they are gonna call it ....

It is whats always worked ... Marketing ...

How many movies had apple as main super computers, but how many laboratories in the world actually use it?

Strictly speaking, OS X is <strong>not</strong> Linux, it's UNIX, specifically, a BSD-derived OS. And it's been certified as UNIX.

Hi Chris,
This is interesting topic and I thank you for your post.
Here is my opinion:

#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?

I think that Apple products inspire innovation in general (not only the open one) only by challenging peoples imagination what can be achieved on the GUI front from aesthetic point of view.
Code wise (closed source): no inspiration, so the answer is: no way out (not even hard way out).
You can not be a true open source believer if you are happy with closed source over closed platform. At least that's how I feel.
I think that If you really understand the true value behind open source, you will be a sad Mac user and will feel miserable (freedom wise) after using iPhone for a while.

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

I do not think Apple is an exception. Rather it is the rule.
Closed source apps and software patents are everywhere.
People have to work and earn money to provide for their families. Closed source model is very easy to understand and is the ruling model of our world.
It is just that Apple Inc. has very good understanding of this closed model and can execute it to perfection.

They also understand that you need 2 major things to succeed:
good product and excellent marketing.
This is also true for the open source model.
I don't see anything strange here.

I also agree with Alf's comment above, that Macs are for wannabe geeks that do not have time, desire, brain or guts to be real geeks (and there is nothing wrong with that).

As a side note, I also like my Mint laptop and N900 phone.
Actually I love my N900. It really geeks me out :)

"Apple’s style of closed innovation results in technology that is so conducive to open innovation."
This has to be the biggest line of crap I have ever heard. What a way to justify using closed products. Hey I got nothing against you using closed sourced software/etc, but If you have to come up with this kind of crap to help you sleep at night then your the one with the guilt trip.

Apple is everything a true Open Source lover hates. Yet there are many big apple fans who claim to be big open source lovers. Why? It comes to this. Apple is not Microsoft. I'm no fan of MS but admit it Apple and many other companies are not better or worse.

Windows or MacOS X? IPod or Zune? Windows based Phone or iPhone? "Well I'm not giving MS any money" so they give it to the Apple without proper taking the time to considering the other choices. By the way, i'm not buying any of them!

and get over it. Apple's products are not that greats. I'd rather have some generic mp3 player for less then 1/2 the price that works with all OSes, has removable memory, & doesn't have the battery soldered to it. I can say the same for a smartphone but add that I want to add apps for any source without breaking the warranty and have multi-tasking.

People should not underestimate the large amount of open source available to Apple (and to anyone else) that they can close off. They can also buy various (nonexclusive) rights to other code (eg, proprietary or GPL).

They also have a rich history from which to draw. They have accumulated a lot of code and experience over the years. Jobs has always place an extremely high value on simplicity, polish, and style. He has acquired personnel that probably work well together and that might be near the top of their fields. I am referring to areas going beyond software development.

Open source, a la stylish, will take off when openXXX (such as this website promotes) takes off in areas that service the average user more closely. To help grow openXXX, we likely need to improve our tools for the experts in these fields as well as for the noob.

I expect FOSS winning is but a matter of time. Our numbers and total talent and experience as a community have a lot more room to grow than does Apple's staff. Heck, Google has enough resources to give Apple a run in the near term and at the same time help speed up the community's acquisition of a wider range of experience and skills.

There are some people attracted to open source, not for the sake of freedom (though obviously they require having access to the code), but because of the potential they see for creating a very high quality product. These individuals will be attracted to Apple significantly. To varying degrees so will others along the continuum be attracted until you reach a point where those people will net reject Apple in increasing amounts as you move to the opposite end.

As for myself, if it could be said that I appreciate a fine product such as the iphone, it would likely also be true that I border on getting orgasmic over an open product. The power to create, to solve problems, to manipulate in unique ways or beyond anything ever done before is such an attractive feature to me. A *really* fine product is an open product, one with near infinite potential. I hope over time to be able to help more people acquire appreciation over that life-giving feature (excuse the corniness).

I'm thinking about a few things I've seen from Richard Stallman:

Those who prefer "open source" since they believe that the development method are better are more likely to be drawn to things like Apple's products,
- while those who prefer "free software" (I'm one of them) prefer the freedom and the open and free culture around the software.

Sure, you can think that an iPhone is a nice phone - but as a free software fan, you'll get an Android or even an OpenMoko if you want 100% freedom.

1) No.
2) Because we wasn't mature enough when Apple gained it's masses. When I say mature, I mean mature enough to realize what way is the right one. We haven't yet seen the potentials of working togeather on large scale. Most work is still done by techies that likes to break free from institutions and regulations. As soon as the base model of innovative evolution is "working togeather" instead of compeating - things will raise to a new level. Only compeating needs secrets and closed development. Think reseach instead...

The biggest plus for Apple products is that they are generally hassle-free. Let me preface this by stating that I've been using Linux personally and professionally since 1995. I know my way around many different distributions and can solve nearly anything on a Linux box. Both Linux and OS X use cups for printing but guess which one works out of the box with every printer I've tried and which one does not? I plug in any camera on OS X and the system opens up iPhoto and prompts me to import my pictures. Every time. How much time do I want to spend getting some Linux based media player to sync with my ipod? Why can't I edit the metadata in my mp3s in Rhythmbox? How about some simple video conferencing applications that just work? Which codec does this video clip need?

The point is that I can resolve all of these things on a Linux computer but I have to spend some time working on these issues before I can move on to the next task. Apple has provided a system where the vast majority of things "just work". If the goal is to tinker with the system then Linux is perfect. But if your goal is to accomplish a specific task, all that tinkering is merely an obstacle and a waste of time. The reason that Apple has done well where "open source" has not is that normal people can use their systems without these roadblocks.

<cite> 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. </cite>

Well, if a trinket can put aside a belief then that belief is a vain accessory, not a life guiding principle.

The problem with Apple is the overbearing marketing glitz obscuring their horrible way of conducting business.

Yes, Apple products are shiny, they probably work very well and (a very, very small) maybe they are worth the premium you pay for it.

I will admit it frankly. I've never owned any Apple kit. So take my view with as much salt as you like.

When I look beyond the marketing (from both Apple and its rabid fan base) that Apple kit is the best thing since sliced bread and if you don't own some of it, you are to be pitied more than a cut-in-half earth worm, I see a lot of stuff to shun.

Apple is a closed, secretive company, not shy of suing its fans. Its products are closed and heavily tied to each other. Apple is not weary of using DRM to control its customers and they are not hesitant to couple hardware to software by any means (EULA and/or technology). Their products are not competitively priced in the consumer arena. They have a history of obsoleting relatively fresh hardware and leaving their customers up the creak with their now expensive paperweights. They also have a tendency to hamper customers in using their hardware in ways Apple does not approve of.

If their marketing wasn't brilliant and their casings weren't shiny, would you do business with them?

On a personal level I would love to muck about with OS X and see if the Hosanna claims of its simplicity, beauty and general awesomeness are true. (I suspect they are not.) On the other hand I absolutely refuse to get a Mac mini. From an engineering viewpoint the mini is a wonder of miniaturization, but when looking at the specs it barely is an entry x86 PC and as such way overpriced to just get the opportunity to play around with OS X. Coupled with the fact that the mini is only expandable with peripherals, it is a waste of money. (I won't pirate OS X for a hackintosh).

So still looking from the outside in, I see a controlling company, who uses marketing and a very limited hardware palette to produce a thing called "superior user experience".

My gut instinct tells me GNU/Linux could deliver the same experience if we limit the supported hardware to one model of desktop, one model of laptop, one model smart phone, one type of music payer and one model of tablet. Then we slap a lot of glassy, shiny widgets on top of KDE or Gnome and then limit the available software to only those that we know run well on the five hardware models. Tada, "superior user experience".

Too bad it will be at the dear cost of freedom and diversity.

I'm a huge Opensource/Linux advocate, but the truth is for most new technology, when something is a concept its not affordable to the majority.
The evolution of phone technology has moved in a similar path to that of PCs. You start with something simple and expensive, then someone comes up with a way of making is simple and cheap, then someone realises they can make a fortune by making it whizzy again, and eventually you end up with an essential, but useful commodity which everyone can afford.

Nokia were (imho) the leaders in mobile phone technology for years before Apple joined the scene. When they did, their phone looked great, but in many ways was inferior to Nokia (at a technical level), but it was open enough to create a market in writing apps, while creaming a royalty off of the whole process and preventing anyone else from taking control of their product. Then comes along Android which solves which part of that problem (apart from moving the monopoly to Google, who are much fuzzier and lovlier than Apple honest). Then Nokia realise that IBM and others might have a point, so port Linux to an Arm version of their phone and in so doing, really open things up.

So I bought myself an N900. Maemo seems to have all the features I'd expect on an Nokia (although I was disapointed not to have a nice office type package), and it is REALLY open source. I'm a little unhappy with the lack of features in the email/sms app 'modest' so I can (in theory) download the source, edit it, recompile it for my maemo and put it back. Then I can either re-release it as an app on Nokia's Ovi app store, or on's freebie one.

If Nokia continue to develop maemo to have the basic features of an iPhone, it'll take over the world. Oh and it does proper multi-tasking, unlike the iphone or the ipad. I still can't fathom why apple thought it was ok to release a device like that without it. Even Windows 2.0 had some kind of pseudo multi-tasking.

Bigging up Apple a little though, I developed for Windows 3.1 and NT back in the 90s and found it an absolute nightmare finding out references about how windows worked under the cover, even as a member of the MSDN. Compare that with Apple pre OS X. I had reference books documenting everything from the file system structure (giving C and Pascal examples of everything I'd need). Apple OS 9 was simply a joy to program for. If the iPhone is anything like that, it might go some way to explaining why it's so popular to tinkerers. You don't need to be an expert to do stuff, you just need to read the docs. Windows was like that to a point. Linux is marvellous, the code is mostly really well written and it's just easy to unravel any problem you might have. That's why opensource will win the day, but you won't make a living on it until someone spends their money making it look pretty first.

Best of luck to Nokia and Maemo I think.

This topic has been a very interesting read. While reading the posts regarding how easy it is to use Apple's products, I started thinking about what got me into computers and ultimately what lead me to advocating open source.

The first computer that I ever used was a Radio Shack TRS-80 that my dad brought home when I was 6 or 7 years old. After playing 'Pitfall' and 'Rocky's Boots' more times then I can remember, I started getting interested in the version of basic that was on the computer. As a kid I was amazed that I could type in a bunch of commands and the computer would do what I asked it to do, even if it was just to print something to the screen in an endless loop. I was hooked and have been working with/on computers ever since.

Now to the thought I am going for ... from personal experience I think that when people are exposed to computers, including programming, at a younger age they are more likely to want to tinker with their computer and try to figure out how things work. I think that this in turn would increase the odds of open source gaining a wider appeal. I think that Apples success stems from creating products that don't require a user that is willing to tinker; but if a higher percentage of the population had learned how to tinker at a younger age, then the landscape of technology might be a bit different. I also think that the rate of innovation would also be much higher then it currently is.

I do want to point out that it is very easy to tinker with a Mac, and possible with an iPhone (would the certificate hoops one has to jump through to develop on the iPhone count as tinkering?).

The attraction for me is that I don't *have* to.'s just about having the one right person. We all know that design doesn't work as a democracy. Think about how many engineers rightfully abhor "design by committee."

If we're talking about extremely-well-designed products, ultimately the deciding factor in that is the designer, not the community behind them. The community may have contributed a terrific amount that would have been impossible without them, but it's the designer who is giving them direction that matters the most.

Open source projects that have one or two excellent designers who want to spend a lot of time on them...well, those projects have excellent design. I think that truly excellent designers (both software designers and visual designers) are so rare, though, that there's simply a greater chance that they're going to be scooped up by the organizations already famous for design. Those organizations are where they would *want* to work. Those are the organizations that are going to go after them. And at the top of that list for the last 30+ years, in computing, is Apple.

Now granted, there's a lot of value in having input from an enormous community. And at least theoretically, given an infinite time frame, a wider community will eventually produce the ultimate product. But without an excellent designer somewhere in the mix giving the community some direction, a community *could* simply be the proverbial "infinite number of monkeys".

The power of open source is that a lot of different people who need the same thing can all get together and create it together, benefiting the larger community and helping themselves at the same time, while forwarding the knowledge of the human race in general about software and engineering methods. The philosophy doesn't lead to good design or bad design--it leads to shared knowledge and broadly-contributed-to systems. There's no guarantee that open-source will produce an excellent product. There's just the guarantee that more people will have the chance to produce it. And that, I hope, if given enough momentum and enough contributors, truly *will* eventually lead to better products. But it always comes down to the people involved, ultimately. It's always about the people.


Hi Chris,
It is always nice to read your posts.
I wanted to focus on the two questions that you raised :
1) 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?

Intrinsic feeling in these questions is that products not made in open innovation way can not be good.

I think fundamentally this assumption is one sided. There is no harm in accepting the fact that "closed way" of developing has produced wonderful product.
Though this does not mean that it is the right way for all.

Can I continue to love Apple and still be open source believer? I see no problem in that. Because ultimate objective is to make to make better products, better solutions in all aspects. Today Apple is doing it, though in a completely different manner. But I believe open source, open innovation is the way forward. So it does not shatter my confidence.

I was an Apple user for 5 years and switched to Free & Open Source software in my daily life. I feel well positioned to comment because I was on the other side of the fence.

There's a myth around Apple that people have bought into. Like all myths its grounded in some truth but the myth itself is false and contains a nasty false dichotomy logical fallicy. The myth is "Apple produces products with superior design and user experiences and it does so because it is so secretive and closed." I believed this wholeheartadly, every Apple fan does, and most people accept it as true even if they don't use Apple's stuff. Problem is, it's not true.

The first part is grounded in a historical truth: Apple's stuff used to look and work better than every else's. Think back 5 years. Apple had the iPod Nano, PowerBook G4, and Tiger. Sony had minidisc walkmans, Windows XP was king, desktop Linux was still impossible for regular folks, and nonApple laptops looked like laserdisc players circa 1985.

Now Dell makes gorgeous compuers, Android phones make the iPhone look like a toy, Ubuntu 9.10 has all the sheen and polish of OS X, and even Windows 7 looks and feels well designed. Apple gets a free pass in the press and in popular imagination as though the past 5 years hadn't happened.

I know from personal expeience; I was shocked at just how good the competition was when I left the Apple ecosystem. The fact that Apple hadn't just been matched but surpassed in so many areas shocked me. I had never considered that other people would catch up; I hadn't even thought they could!

So to the author and others who claim they couldn't live without their MacBooks and iPhones I can tell you that you will be shocked just how much better things are without them. Get a nice thin-and-light laptop, throw the latest Ubuntu on it, grab a Nexus One or Moto Droid and proceed to have your jaw dropped.

This is a topic I've wrestled with a lot lately. No clear answer. Most of the time, I just want to get work done. My Mac is perfect for that. And yet, philosophically I'm fully supportive of the Open ideal. Yes, I'm a hypocrite. But let me deal with your questions.

1. I'm not sure what the writer really means by "open invitation," but I expect that it's related to seduction. No one knows how to incite desire like Apple. And as with many things in life, the appearance is not necessarily the underlying reality. Mac aside, with Apple's electronics you have an open and attractive invitation to effortlessly consume mass quantities of downloadable (if often DRM'ed) media (ca-ching!) while twittering away your day with your friends and listening to corporate merchandised pop music [sic]. Apple products are well-made shiny baubles, leading to much distraction. Open Source leads to skill development and thus empowerment. The late Neil Postmen wrote a book called "Amusing Ourselves to Death." It was published the year after the Mac was introduced, but long before the iUniverse. If only he could see how we are amusing ourselves today. (Speaking of marketing, how often have you ever seen anyone Steve Jobs's age in one of his ultra-hip commercials? And how come "Mac guy" has so little to say? He comes across as completely vacuous.)

2. That's a no-brainer. Apple products derive from a small team of very talented people who are on the same page. Open Source tends to be the tower of Babel. There's a lot of good engineering under the hood of Open Source, but there's never the feeling of a unified desktop as there is on a Mac. Still, I suppose it's good enough. I've got Ubuntu loaded as a virtual machine on my mini. Lots to like, but ... it's also butt-ugly.

Like others, I'm dismayed at Apple's evolution; but the seeds were visible from the beginning, and they are, for good or ill, a reflection of Steve Jobs's personality. The real issue, however, isn't Apple. It's the slave mentality of the people who don't demand freedom, who are more enthralled with gyrating hipsters and cheap shots at rivals. And this goes way beyond the world of computers.

MacBooks are really overpriced pieces of junk, you could buy something that is cheaper and better. I bet MacBooks are just lying on the shelves:

"Apple shipped about 7 million MacBooks in all of 2009, and has increased its orders to one supplier to about one million per month -- a rate maintained during the typically slow span of January."

iPhones are so evil and locked in, who in the world would ever want them, the Android and N900 and just about anything else is better. I am sure no one is buying them:

"The company said it sold a record 8.7 million iPhones in the quarter. That's up 17.6% from the 7.4 million it sold in the previous quarter and double what it sold during the same quarter a year ago."

iPods, geez, why buy an iPod when you can get a cheaper MP3 player that is so much better for less money? iPod sales must be sucking wind:

"Apple's share of the MP3 player market remains about 70 percent, and the company continues to see share gains internationally."

No one of any importance is going to want or use the iPad. It's just a big crappy expensive iPod Touch:

"This week, Epocrates Inc., the developer of mobile applications used by more than 900,000 healthcare professionals worldwide, revealed a new study of more than 350 clinicians conducted in the wake of Apple's iPad announcement. Among those surveyed, 9 percent said they plan to buy an iPad when it is immediately available, and another 13 percent intend to purchase one in the first year."

Money is scarce these days. People are unemployed, businesses are failing. People are voting with their dollars... and saying that Apple is giving them what they want.

Alternative question: Why don't more open source developers focus on end user ease of use and functionality, instead of scratching their own geeky itches and calling it a day?

Yes, clearly this is an interesting topic. My view is that Apple strives to develop products and services (like iTunes) that their target customers "don't know they need" until Apple reveals them. This approach has always been the clearest path to profitable product launches in either existing or new markets. It's also the best way to develop the holy grail of "Blue Ocean" products.

Another of Apple's secrets is knowing in detail who their primary / target Buyer Personas are and designing products to meet their needs so unknown customers show up on their own.

Over-delivering in terms of value is Apple's key ingredient. Their secretive culture sure seems to work and I hope it keeps working for a long time to come if they continue to crank out innovative new products. You may also have noticed that not every Apple product is a blockbuster hit. Their home run percentage is higher than most companies but they still make plenty of outs along the way. I think they vet their products very well before they're released and perhaps the closed Apple shop helps this process if they can rely on trusted outsiders.

I do think we'll all see more approaches at Open Innovation everywhere, including Apple, due to cost pressures and the need to get products and services out the door faster.

it makes things close........while it opens........
think of MySQL success?......Dual licensing......
while Apple works like the hardware way.......

Have you seen this?

I happen to be an Open Source user and proponent. I think that there has been some very good developments in the Open Source community.

However, the belief or statement that Open Source projects or products are in themselves better than commercial counterparts or that companies should seek to use the open source model or even an open culture to be better is a leap of faith...and faith seems to be a lot of what folks are talking these days when it comes to Open Source.

Did going open source on Solaris change the adoption of Solaris as a platform? Probably a tad, but enough to save the company or create true adoption of what is otherwise a stable and proven platform?

What about open would improve Apple? On the contrary, may it not hurt them? They are a hardware does open sourcing any of their products help them be a better hardware company? Sure there would be ideas and innovation given back to Apple, but who has the most to gain? Answer: commodity hardware vendors.

Taking hardware out of the picture, and looking into Apple's space, what desktop application that went open source is a good example for Apple to follow? How about one that has been open source the whole time...I can name / think of one Firefox.

While I don't agree with Apple's tactics, and they seem almost paranoid at times...a suggestion that they adopt an Open Source development cycle has no proven grounds as far as I can see...

Each model has it's strengths and weaknesses.
I've never "run" an open source project, but from those articles I've read, it's sometimes like herding cats. You've got to lead in a single direction to realize a vision of the future. If the vision is good, and well defined, Open Source leverages the best in the assembled developers to produce something quite cool.
On the other hand, even in the best projects, the vision can be fragmented and divided. "what is the best way to select from a list of elements in this application?"
The proprietary model has it's strengths and weaknesses as well. You can throw stones at Apple for it's closed nature, but they do a good job at controlling the platform and the number of options. They can focus on a single hardware platform and they have the umph to make that work. They have an absolute vision tyrant at the head of the organization. When the boss wants "x", in Apple, that has a way of evaporating division. When that tyrant IS always right, that model works.
There is a place in the world for both models. Some of us are cheap, and we like Open Source because we can "wire it ourselves". Our Do-It-Yourselfism is a part of how we cope with the world. There are others who are willing (and able) to spend hundreds of dollars on the latest and coolest thingamajiggie out there, and replace it several weeks later.

The cool thing about it is the cross-pollination that happens between all of these models. The only real "evil" here is when folks grab a club to protect their "turf" instead of moving on to create the next cool thing.

Running an open source project sounds a lot like running a Non-Profit organization of volunteers.

You still need the single vision, solidarity and focust to make the organization operate smoothly.

By leveraging the strengths of the volunteers you are able to get more out of the organization, which in turns fuels the organization into being able to do more!

The key is not whether it is open or closed, but rather if the organization is run by like-minded people that can cooperate and solidify behind a single idea, concept, process, etc.

If the organization is run by people who are willing to use the open source concept then it will work well, but if some are closed, some are open, some are petty and some are power-hungry the organization is not going to go anywhere fast.

The problem with "innovation" here is that it's being used in two completely different contexts.

One is in terms of creating a new platform, toolkit, or standard to create new products. When you do this, you want the most open standards possible to drive innovation. Look at Google, Amazon, Drupal, and Open Source initiatives in general for some examples of the great work done here.

But when you have a more specific use case, like enabling casual computing, you need an Apple or OXO-like focus on usability. It's no longer about getting everyone's opinion, but about finding experts who truly understand how to bring in specific types of interaction.

This is actually part of why the Apple SDK works, as well. They wanted to appeal to programmers and took the time to make it far easier to create iPhone apps than other apps. So, we've got apps that work just fine on the closed system and don't work anywhere else. Does it matter? Not really, when you've got the network that Apple does. So, Apple has "innovated" by carving down functionalities and capabilities to a very focused product rather than allowing anything and everything.

And this is a form of innovation, but because of this approach, Apple has a lot of problems with enterprise adoption, for instance. Apple's closed-door philosophy and reluctance to change goes head to head with the enterprise IT mindset. Otherwise, the iPhone would have replaced the Blackberry by now. As is, Apple is happy to maintain its slow infiltration and hope that third-parties figure out how to make the iPhone enterprise-secure.

I'm an open source proponent. I'd make two comments:

1) Apple has certainly benefitted from open source projects, yet they give little back.

2) There is very little money in open source. It's hard to compete with a company (closed or open) that has tons of money.

Point 1 really bothers me about Apple.

Look at what they've done for Objective-C.

Look at the various open Standards they've sponsored such as OpenCL et al.

I've seen more example code on the Apple Developer support sites than any other I've been party to in a long time.

Look at the tooling they GIVE AWAY (Xcode). It is bar none the best C, C++, OC development environment out there in terms of productivity in the supported languages. We are using Xcode to maintain and develop our C code here even if the ultimate target is Linux because our productivity is so much better with the tool chain.

Preface this with the following disclaimer. I am an open source advocate, I am not anti-closed source at the same time. I use a mix of Windows, Linux and Mac’s as servers, but I use Mac’s almost exclusively as desktops. Most of my income comes from selling Windows software and services.

There are a couple of things that I think ultimately play into the context and content here, and I think that they really only add to the dichotomy that is Apple and Open Source.

A huge part of the problem is that Apple is two entities wrapped into one. They are Apple the hardware company, which is as closed as closed gets, and Apple the software company which is a closed source company that uses and contributes to a large number of open source projects, including many that originate within their walls.

For many people, it is difficult to distinguish between the two, but in order to really understand the culture, you have to. Apple the hardware company has always been notoriously secretive. They protect those secrets zealously. They believe in control, and those secrets are tied to that control. From an open source view, this is a very bad thing. It makes developing 3rd party Operating Systems for Apple hardware harder than it could be.

Then there is Apple the software company. This is where things get interesting, and this is where the lines get murky.

Yes, Apple creates a pair of operating systems that are very polished. Both the iPhoneOS and Mac OSX are based upon the same BSD Unix derived core known as Darwin. Darwin is Open Source, but uses a modified license that does not sit well with most GPL purists. On top of that base, Apple elected to build a highly custom user experience that eschews the traditional graphical foundation of the *NIX environments. Rather than adopt X-Windows, Apple adapts a custom UI layer. None of this layer is Open Source.

From there though, the entire platform is built around open source tools and toolkits. Apple even provides an X-Windows foundation to make it easier for the *NIX opensource users to work with existing tools.

If you compare a modern Linux distro to a current Mac OS X installation, what you find is an amazing similarity in tools and toolchains. Ruby, Python, Perl, Bash, MySql, SQLLite, X11R6, Apache, GCC, wxWidgets, all are common to both platforms. All are heavily used in the more traditional open source platforms. Many of these have had active contributions from Apple itself. At the same time, Apple created WebKit, which has now found its way into so many OpenSource projects like Epiphany and Google’s Chrome. Other Apple OSS projects that haven’t had quite the same adoption, like launchd still continue to be enchanced and could eventually make their way into existing OSS platforms as well.

The concerns about the tinkerer are interesting, because Apple continues to give it’s Xcode toolchain away with every copy of Mac OS X, it does protect it’s iPhone & iPad platforms behind a paid for application. Some feel that is unreasonable, I don’t agree, but that’s not the issue.

The point in the tinkerer concerns is that you cannot deploy an app without going through the App Store. This is true, if you want to deploy to to the world. I paid my $99, I haven’t deployed a single tinker toy to the App Store, but I have about 30 little projects that I use personally. Everyone of them uses OSS bits and pieces. I am a tinkerer, and as such I simply do not understand the concerns. If one of my apps matures to a point I want to sell or give it away, then the App Store is not only viable, it makes it much easier for the Hobbyist to generate income, as there is no need for that Hobbyist to establish it’s own ecommerce presence. The App Store also provides better than industry averages in revenue sharing for a 3rd party publishing deal.

And therein lies what I believe is the crux of the issues and concerns.

While Apple controls the User Experience with an iron fist, they also leverage open source to provide the most comprehensive platform for the experienced tinkerer. In this the provide the best of both worlds. A platform where the binary installer and the ./configure;make; sudo make install coexist side by side. A world where it is entirely possible to function exclusively within the confines of the GUI, or to drop to the command line and have the power expected from a moden *nix shell. It is what most of us want, but at the same time, if you lack the razor focus and control over that User Experience, it has proven to be difficult to rival. Both Gnome and KDE have powerful and flexible User Experiences, but both suffer from a bit of schizophrenia induced by having too many chefs in the kitchen.

So, while Apple builds a product that caters to users and tinkerer’s alike, they do so with a culture that seems to offend as many tinkerer’s as it embraces. It is a dichotomy that I do not think has a resolution. The hard core OSS purist will never be able to reconcile with that closed culture. The pragmatic OSS advocates, may be able to. The casual OSS user will see nothing wrong in the model, and the consumer does not even know there is an issue.

" At the same time, Apple created WebKit, "
Wasn't WebKit based on Konqueror's (and thus KDE's) KHTML?

"The point in the tinkerer concerns is that you cannot deploy an app without going through the App Store. This is true, if you want to deploy to to the world. I paid my $99, I haven’t deployed a single tinker toy to the App Store, but I have about 30 little projects that I use personally. Everyone of them uses OSS bits and pieces. I am a tinkerer, and as such I simply do not understand the concerns. If one of my apps matures to a point I want to sell or give it away, then the App Store is not only viable, it makes it much easier for the Hobbyist to generate income, as there is no need for that Hobbyist to establish it’s own ecommerce presence. The App Store also provides better than industry averages in revenue sharing for a 3rd party publishing deal."

1: You have to pay to start developing. If we want to encourage tinkering, you need to throw the developing tools in for free.
Do you know about the OLPC's Sugarinterface? It's a lot of Python, and most apps has a button in it interface to check out the code behind it. That's real tinkering freedom.

2: Apple still has to approve the app if you just wanna share it with a few of your non-developer friends, because it has to go through the App Store then.

3: Not everybody wanna sell their apps. Maybe they just wanna write some lines of code and get it out there in hours. Then those $99 is a major obstacle.

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