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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