Apple, openness, and the Zittrain thesis

by on March 30, 2008 · 23 comments

[Note: You might want to first read my review of Jonathan Zittrain’s book to give this essay some context.]

Jonathan Zittrain must have been smiling as he read Leander Kahney’s excellent Wired cover story this month, “How Apple Got Everything Right By Doing Everything Wrong.” In a sense, the article vindicates Zittrain’s thesis in The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It.
Apple Jobs soviet art style
Again, in his provocative book, Zittrain argues that, for a variety of reasons, the glorious days of the generative, open Internet and general-purpose PCs are supposedly giving way to closed networks and a world of what he contemptuously calls “sterile, tethered devices.” And Apple products such as the iPhone, the iPod, and iTunes serve as prime examples of the troubling world that await us. And Kahney’s article confirms that Apple is every bit as closed and insular as Zittrain suggests. Kahney nicely contrasts Apple with Google, a company that “embraces openness,” trusts “the wisdom of crowds,” and has its famous “Don’t be evil” philosophy:

It’s ironic, then, that one of the Valley’s most successful companies ignored all of these tenets. Google and Apple may have a friendly relationship — Google CEO Eric Schmidt sits on Apple’s board, after all — but by Google’s definition, Apple is irredeemably evil, behaving more like an old-fashioned industrial titan than a different-thinking business of the future. Apple operates with a level of secrecy that makes Thomas Pynchon look like Paris Hilton. It locks consumers into a proprietary ecosystem. And as for treating employees like gods? Yeah, Apple doesn’t do that either.


On the other hand, Kahney’s article serves as vindication of my response to Zittrain’s book since the article illustrates how, despite breaking all the typical rules of Silicon Valley, the company is more successful than ever and has legions of happy customers. Again, in my review of his book, I argued that there is no reason that we can’t have the best of both worlds. Much of the time, “open” systems produce the best results. Other times, more closed, proprietary models give rise to great products. Today’s digital marketplace is full of wonderful devices and services of both flavors. Apple’s success proves that point, as Kahney’s Wired article shows:

by deliberately flouting the Google mantra, Apple has thrived. When Jobs retook the helm in 1997, the company was struggling to survive. Today it has a market cap of $105 billion, placing it ahead of Dell and behind Intel. Its iPod commands 70 percent of the MP3 player market. Four billion songs have been purchased from iTunes. The iPhone is reshaping the entire wireless industry. Even the underdog Mac operating system has begun to nibble into Windows’ once-unassailable dominance; last year, its share of the US market topped 6 percent, more than double its portion in 2003.

It’s hard to see how any of this would have happened had Jobs hewed to the standard touchy-feely philosophies of Silicon Valley. Apple creates must-have products the old-fashioned way: by locking the doors and sweating and bleeding until something emerges perfectly formed. It’s hard to see the Mac OS and the iPhone coming out of the same design-by-committee process that produced Microsoft Vista or Dell’s Pocket DJ music player. Likewise, had Apple opened its iTunes-iPod juggernaut to outside developers, the company would have risked turning its uniquely integrated service into a hodgepodge of independent applications — kind of like the rest of the Internet, come to think of it.

Importantly, it’s not just that Apple has thrived, it’s that consumers have loved their products to the point that there is a sort of “cult of Apple” out there. I should make clear that I am no Apple fanboy. As my TLF colleagues Tim Lee and Jerry Brito can attest, I am constantly making fun of them for their love of Apple products. I am willing to deal with the warts associated with the PC environment because I love the more open-ended nature of it. That being said, there are times when I have to swallow my pride and admit to Tim and Jerry that, in many ways, their Apple products are superior to my PC and Windows-based toys. It’s impossible to spend a few minutes with the iPhone or the latest iPods and Macs and not fall in love with those devices and their interfaces. They are truly spectacular. Thus, as Kahney’s article makes clear, whether you love him or hate him, you have to admit that Jobs is on to something:

No other company has proven as adept at giving customers what they want before they know they want it. Undoubtedly, this is due to Jobs’ unique creative vision. But it’s also a function of his management practices. By exerting unrelenting control over his employees, his image, and even his customers, Jobs exerts unrelenting control over his products and how they’re used. And in a consumer-focused tech industry, the products are what matter.

Indeed they are. And even though Zittrain labels Apple’s products “sterile and tethered,” there is no doubt that the company’s approach has produced some wonderful results. Personally, they are not for me since I prefer all those “general purpose” devices that Zittrain lionizes. But, again, we can have both. Let Steve Jobs be a control freak and keep those walls around Apple’s digital garden high and tight if he wants. There are plenty of other wide open gardens for the rest of us to play in.

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  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Just FYI.. Zittrain and I debated these issues in person at the New America Foundation on November 6th. The video of that event can be found here.

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    Very interesting article. I have a Mac and iPhone but do not have the illusion that Apple cares about me. There products add more utility to me for their cost than the other products I have found. Part of those 'costs' are the closed nature of the products. As soon as I find more utility somewhere else for a lower cost I will probably move fairly quickly. I am really upset with the iPhone execution (low battery, low call signal, lack of ability to tether under the contract, high price relative to competition $80/month minimium, etc.) Whenever I send a crash report to Apple I always put in the comments something like “I thought this was an Apple; not a PC”.

    Apple, like Google, only cares about their bottom line. As soon as they stop adding value their customers will flock somewhere else.

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    Apple has gone beyond customer relationships and established an image which portrays apple as a way of life. With such image, whatever they produce is sure to sell a lot. But I am afraid their recent iphone performance is not being that good. I am hearing a lot of complains and dissatisfaction which does not at all go with their name.

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    Apple is getting themselves into a close network. I personally do not like their products and strategy, as they do not seem to be believing in an open field. However, as you have pointed out, they are doing great nonetheless as they seem to have a huge customer base who happen to like anything they produce.

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    What is the origin of the trade openness measure, (X+M)/GDP? I have searched high and low for the first paper that ever used (X+M)/GDP as a measure of trade openness. Do you know if such a paper exists? Many thanks…..lettings

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    Wired magazine’s Leander Kahney has written a wonderful article on Apple’s success gained while eschewing the rules that the rest of us abide by. For example, regarding Jobs’ parking his car at Apple headquarters:But there is one Mercedes that doesn’t need to search for very long, and it belongs to Steve Jobs. If there’s no easy-to-find spot and he’s in a hurry, Jobs has been known to pull up to Apple’s front entrance and park in a handicapped space. (Sometimes he takes up two spaces.) It’s become a piece of Apple lore — and a running gag at the company. motor trade recruitment have stuck notes under his windshield wiper: “Park Different.” They have also converted the minimalist wheelchair symbol on the pavement into a Mercedes logo.

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    Likewise, had Apple opened its iTunes-iPod juggernaut to outside developers, the company would have risked turning its uniquely integrated service into a hodgepodge of independent applications — kind of like the rest of the Internet, come to think of it.

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    The jury is still out on this one for me. Part of me believes Apple should remain closed, I mean they are a business, and being unique makes them more marketable. However, I do believe in this tech era, that openess is important. I find it amazing that PC makers have not figured out Apples technology yet?

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    Google “do no evil” thing is like a New Year's resolution. I'm sure they meant it back when they were small. But now they're storing your information for a long time.

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