How closed is Apple anyway?

by on November 4, 2010 · 15 comments

Anyone who knows me will attest to my status as an Apple fanboy. (I type this on my new 11″ MacBook Air, which I managed to resist purchasing for a full week after it was announced.) Hopefully they’ll also attest to my ability to put consumer preference aside when considering logical arguments because today I want to suggest to you that Apple’s business strategy is good for the open internet.

Apple has come under fire by some supporters of an open internet and open software platforms such as Jonathan Zittrain and Tim Wu, who argue that Apple’s walled garden approach to devices and software will lead us to a more controlled and less innovative world. In particular, they point to the app store and Apple’s zealous control over what apps consumers are allowed to purchase and run on their devices. Here’s the thing, though: Every Apple device comes with a web browser. A web browser is an escape hatch from Apple’s walled garden. And Apple has taken a backseat to no one in nurturing an open web. Consider this:

- Apple created *and open-sourced* Webkit, arguably the most modern and standards-compliant web rendering engine now available. It serves as the basis for the Safari and Google Chrome browsers on desktops and the iPhone, Android, WebOS, and Blackberry browsers on mobile devices. Why is that important? Because its strict adherence to HTML5 and related standards has allowed developers to make cross-platform applications (Like Google Docs and GMail) without worrying about proprietary extensions like those of Microsoft and Adobe. In fact, Webkit’s success is in large part responsible for Explorer’s decline and pressure on Microsoft to become more standards compliant.

- Apple’s war on Flash has often been portrayed as evidence of Apple’s domineering attitude, but in fact it can be seen as a victory for the open web. Flash, after all, is a closed proprietary technology. Apple’s refusal to include Flash in its mobile devices (and now Macs) not only makes for better devices since Flash is crashy, a CPU and battery hog, and a perennial security risk, but has also incentivized developers to move to HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript for their web applications. In fact, Adobe has been [promoting tools that help convert](http://www.macrumors.com/2010/10/29/adobe-shows-off-flash-to-html5-converter/) their Flash applications to HTML5. Microsoft has similarly been [backing away](http://www.zdnet.com/blog/microsoft/microsoft-our-strategy-with-silverlight-has-shifted/7834) from its Flash competitor Silverlight in favor of open standards.

Will Apple ever see the open web as a threat to its walled garden? I’m not sure why they would. You’re still going to need a device to take advantage of web apps, and Apple is in the business of selling devices. What Apple does care about is making sure the web runs on open standards, so that they can’t be locked out and so that the web experience is no better on any other platform. If they can make sure that’s the case, then they can compete on another margin, namely what they’re good at: excellent devices and their vertical, integrated, curated software and media ecosystem.

Now, that strategy didn’t work for AOL. If you could get the web anywhere, why would you pay extra for curated Time-Warner content? I think there are differences. The web was an afterthought for AOL and it showed, and what AOL was offering for a premium was not very different from what was available for free on the web. But whether it works out for Apple or not, it’s closed business model is not only perfectly compatible with an open and “generative” web, but it’s in Apple’s interest to foster it and we’ve seen them do just that.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y4AJEC7WSC22KKCYIH6ANZ43CM Mile L.

    apple is about 80% more open than microsoft, 30% more closed than linux, 20% more closed than android, those are the current percentages…

  • Steve W

    What makes most Apple haters detest Apple's “walled garden” is the fact that currently there are more Apps INSIDE the garden than outside (and that is not likely to change in the near future). It's the classic story of the wolf and the sour grapes.

  • sbma44

    Agreed completely on Flash — though Apple's initial refusal to allow Adobe products to cross-compile to native apps was hard to justify (I applaud them for reversing that decision).

    The Webkit point is a good one, but is mostly a historical point. Apple was quite good on openness around the dawn of OS X, but critics are concerned by its actions over the last few years — justifiably, in my opinion.

  • Perry

    Webkit comes from QT, not Apple. They had no choice about open sourcing it because the code they started with from QT was GPLed.

  • Perry

    Webkit comes from QT, not Apple. They had no choice about open sourcing it because the code they started with from QT was GPLed.

  • Perry

    Webkit comes from QT, not Apple. They had no choice about open sourcing it because the code they started with from QT was GPLed.

  • Dan

    Webkit was built on KHTML, part of KDE and which is licensed under the LGPL. They had no choice but to open-source their enhancements to it.

  • Perry

    Well, from KDE/QT/et al, as another poster has noted, but same difference. I've heard Steve Jobs assert in public that Webkit is from Apple, and it isn't. They started with GPLed code so they had no option on GPLing it.

  • Mopey

    The inside or outside disjunction is far less exclusive if you decide to jailbreak your device and you have marginal ethical values. The IOS aps (usually the full library of all apps) are traded like chiclets on the “underground”… but not so far underground, if you know how to use a search engine. So, there is always that to guard against Apple's world dominance.

  • http://twitter.com/dbabbage Duncan Babbage

    If Apple had wanted to produce a proprietary web browser, they would have been easily capable of building one from scratch. They used GPL code because they were more than happy to have an open source project. My understanding is that the development they've done on that code base far outstrips the size of the original code base they used as a foundation. (Anyone want to specifically verify?)

  • http://srynas.blogspot.com/ Steve R.

    Mopey wrote “and you have marginal ethical values”. The problem is that many companies that sell technological products are attempting to deprive the consumer of their property rights to the products they buy by asserting that the purchaser doesn't really own the product. That concept needs to be squelched.

    Acquiring apps that enhance the value of the product for the consumer does not constitute marginal ethical values. The lack of ethics belongs to the companies claiming the ability to unilaterally impose on the consumer an ethical standard that only furthers the interests of the company. Hypothetically -> “By acquiring our product your soul belongs to us.”

  • http://srynas.blogspot.com/ Steve R.

    Mopey wrote “and you have marginal ethical values”. The problem is that many companies that sell technological products are attempting to deprive the consumer of their property rights to the products they buy by asserting that the purchaser doesn't really own the product. That concept needs to be squelched.

    Acquiring apps that enhance the value of the product for the consumer does not constitute marginal ethical values. The lack of ethics belongs to the companies claiming the ability to unilaterally impose on the consumer an ethical standard that only furthers the interests of the company. Hypothetically -> “By acquiring our product your soul belongs to us.”

  • JFish

    IE9 beta is performing far better in the W3C tests for HTML5 than Safari, so Apple's open sourcing of Webkit is NOT actually the most standards compliant.
    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/11/01/w3c_html5_conformance_tests/

    Flash is technically closed, that is true, but so is the H.264 video codex that Apple puts behind its HTML5 <video> tag, with the difference being that Flash is free to distribute and H.264 is NOT: there is currently a royalty moratorium from the MJPEG group on the codex, but that's NOT the same as open. That is the reason that Firefox and Opera refuse to support H.264 … for them, you still have to pick a “real” codex in order for the <video> tag to work.</video></video>

  • Pingback: Yesterday’s Links | Josh Braun's Blog

  • Pingback: Turns out Apple’s walled garden susceptible to market pressure and political pressure

Previous post:

Next post: