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]( their Flash applications to HTML5. Microsoft has similarly been [backing away]( 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.

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