The Apple Paradox: How a Company That’s So Closed Can Foster So Much Open Innovation

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start designing apps that work well on both platforms? Instead, if the usual pattern applies, the iSlate will emerge this week as if from the head of Zeus, and only then will Apple release a software development kit, sending programmers scrambling off to see what they can come up with in the scant months before the tablet’s ship date.

On the other hand, it’s hard to argue with success. The iPhone was closed when it launched—leading Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, to decry it as one of the products threatening the “generative quality” of the Internet—but that changed, and now we have a world with 120,000 iPhone apps. It’s conceivable, though it’s not very palatable to the “open culture” crowd, that a closed creative process, driven by a guiding genius like Jobs, is the only way to build products as coherent and compelling as the iPhone. I’m sure this would be Jobs’ own argument. After all, without the solid foundation provided by the phone and its core features—the multitouch interface, the camera, the accelerometer, the GPS chip—most iPhone apps would be nothing special.

Certainly, the opposite extreme of completely open development has yet to prove itself in the mobile computing world. Google’s Android mobile operating system is built on a Linux kernel—and if you ask me, that’s why the market penetration of Android phones is somewhere around 2 percent, while Blackberry devices account for 40 percent of the market, the iPhone for 30 percent, and Palm devices for 7 percent, according to September 2009 data from ChangeWave Research.  [Correction: A previous version of this paragraph stated that Android phones claim “less than 30 percent of the smartphone market, compared to the iPhone’s 55 percent.” In fact, the 30 percent and 55 percent figures refer to the percentage of ad requests over the mobile Web by brand of phone, as measured by mobile advertising provider AdMob in November 2009. I regret the confusion.]

Richard Stallman, creator of the GNU Project and founder of the Free Software Foundation, says his current computer is a Lemote YeeLoong8089 netbook. The device is billed by its Chinese manufacturer as “the world’s first laptop which contains completely free software,” from the BIOS to the Linux operating system to the open-source drivers and applications. But for all its free-ness, the device has an aura that might best be summarized as rinky dink. As Antonio Rodriguez, chief technology officer of the consumer printing group at Hewlett-Packard, commented on Twitter this weekend, the image of a programmer of Stallman’s fame bent over the 10-inch-wide YeeLoong “is like Leonardo with crayons.”

So I am left feeling queasy. Apple products are both beautiful and functional, a rare combination. I love my Mac and my iPhone, and in a few months you’ll probably find me in the line to buy an iSlate. But with every Apple purchase, there’s a part of me that rebels at handing my money over to a company that’s so fanatically controlling. I can’t help wondering what Apple’s customers and developers would do if another company came along with a solid, elegant, open computing platform and a less suspicious, more cooperative disposition toward its community. (Google, are you listening?) The next few months, as we watch how Apple manages the iSlate’s rollout, will be telling. I’m hopeful, but wary.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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