Posted by: commonsresource | April 27, 2010

In defense of Apple?

Today might be a strange day on which to write this long-planned post given the Apple/Gizmodo/Jason Chen/ iPhone prototype debacle (well explained in this BBC story: iPhone blogger has computers seized by police). While I can not condone Apple’s most recent actions and share the common feeling that Apple may be becoming increasingly controlling, I have long felt that Apple does not deserve much of the “villainization” that the open source software community has been directing its way.

As a starting point, I understand that Apple products are largely “closed” and that it is frustrating for some people not to be able to open and tinker with the “black boxes”.  That being said, I believe that much of the value in Apple products and the Apple ecosystem flow from this closed and well controlled dimension.  In particular, the ease with which Apple products and services are used and interoperate is the flip side of the closed and controlled coin.

My critique of this open source “posse” is that they are somewhat like auto mechanic hobbyists who really like working on their cars and who welcome a roadside breakdown as an opportunity to be creative and resourceful.  To this small group of people, the modern car is a source of great frustration since there are few, if any, user serviceable parts inside. What this group often fails to realize is that most people simply want a reliable car and neither have the time nor the expertise nor the interest to work on it.  For these people, a roadside breakdown may be one step closer to a nervous breakdown!

Many of those same people also want a computer that does what is supposed to do and that seamlessly connects with other services and devices as needed.  They do not welcome a computer breakdown as an opportunity to be creative and resourceful.  If this ends up meaning that their computer is more of a black box, this group of users does not care since they neither have the time nor the expertise nor the interest to work on it. While the open source software posse may be offended by this Faustian bargain, it is a price that many people like me are willing to pay.

And that reminds me that I am off to the Apple Store this Friday to have our data migrated from the aged family desktop PC to a Mac Mini. Perhaps that is the best defense of Apple after all.


  1. Closed? Perhaps the iPhone but OTOH to Apple’s credit they both use significant portions of open source within their product (e.g. Darwin/Mach kernel, which is the open source heart of OSX) and also release quite a bit (but not all) of their code under open source licenses (see Given their business model doing so probably makes a lot of sense, while it might not if their primary money-making activity was the licensing of software independent of the sale of hardware.

    I’ve heard the argument on stability before but am not quite convinced – some critics suggest that stability could be achieved by code signing and certification. But to lock down the platform altogether and permit apps to be installed from one source only? To me, that seems either overly paternalistic (which is fine if that is what a user is looking for) or a revenue maximization strategy (again, also fine if one understands either from the user or developer perspective that Apple will be taking a cut.

    In addition, more generally, I’m also not quite convinced that closed is necessarily more stable – I recall setting up Apache/Linux boxes many moons ago that you just fired up and let them run for a year or two, no crashes. Having worked in an all-Mac shop at one point, I do recall the occasional, fairly significant system hiccups, where you got that funny face on the screen (not very helpful).

    All that being said, when you refer to closed, do you mean iPhone/iPad or also Macs? I thought the latter you could install anything you wanted – least that was the way it once was – have they locked them down as well now?

  2. Thanks, David, for your insightful comment. I readily acknowledge that my use of the term “closed” in my post was far from precise and that Macs belong in a different category that iPhones & iPads. I also agree that closed does not equal stable in the same way that the “black box” approach to modern automobiles has not necessarily made them more reliable.

    My main point was that significant consumer benefits flow from the approaches that Apple has adopted and that this simple point is often overlooked by the open source community. While we should certainly openly debate whether Apple is being overly “closed” and controlling, it is wise to keep the other side of the coin in mind. In fact, I am somewhat amused by the number of Apple products that I see at Open Source Software gatherings.

    Thanks again!

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