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

1/25/10Follow @wroush

[Corrected and clarified, 1:30 p.m. 1/25/10, see page 2] Come Wednesday, we’ll learn a lot more about Apple’s presumed slate device. What we know right now, first hand, is a big fat nothing. Apple keeps a famously tight lid on its employees, suppliers, and partners, the only exception being the occasional strategic leak designed to spur excitement around its product launches. Even after products come out, the company controls who gets to see and monkey with them; I remember my frustration back in the spring of 2008, in the months between the announcement of the iTunes App Store and the actual launch, when I knew that dozens of local developers were writing apps for the iPhone but none of them were allowed to show their apps to journalists, on pain of ejection from the program. To this day, there’s still a rigorous and unpredictable process for getting an app into the store (though there are signs of relaxation in that department).

And yet millions of designers, artists, musicians, writers, programmers, and other creative professionals love their Apple products, myself included. The Apple brand is almost synonymous with free-thinking creativity. The programs people are inspired to write for the Mac OS X operating system are routinely more elegant and useful and less annoying than their Windows counterparts. And the advent of the App Store, which allowed thousands of third-party developers to exploit the iPhone’s exceptional capabilities, has fostered a stunning amount of experimentation in software design, dramatically increasing the expectations we place on our mobile computing devices.

In short, there’s a big gap between the way Apple sees the world and the way most of its customers see things. This is especially true when it comes to the relationship between power and knowledge. To all outward appearances, Steve Jobs believes that knowledge and information confer power only if they are carefully guarded. But for most of the creative types who use Apple products, the big rewards in life—the opportunity to gain reputation, advance professionally, and earn money—come from sharing knowledge. The reason I use Apple hardware all day long is not so that I can be like Steve, but because the company makes the best technology I’ve found for staying informed, synthesizing what I learn, and passing it along to others.

A blog post this month by photographer, designer, and career coach Tasra Mar, who spent a year working at Apple, puts the attitude gap in stark, visual terms. Mar shares several photographs of a simple length of rope. In one picture, the rope is tightly coiled; in another, one end of the coil is unfurled; in a third, the coil has been loosened into a spiral, opening a path to the center.

The tight coil, for Mar, represents the belief many people hold “that there is scarcity of knowledge or that they will be harmed or impacted by sharing that knowledge.” Having worked at Apple, Mar writes, “I know firsthand about the tight hold that is placed on knowledge and information—basically everything is on a need to know basis. No open discussions, forums or free conversations.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Mar hastens to add: there are times, she says, when guarding information is appropriate. That’s why we have NDAs and laws protecting trade secrets. Mar is absolutely right when she points out that this closed philosophy has “paid off handsomely” for Apple.

The paradox—and it may be one that goes to the heart of digital-age capitalism—is that Apple’s style of closed innovation results in technology that is so conducive to open innovation. Even more conducive, in fact, than its makers may have intended. Shortly after the iPhone was announced in January 2007, Steve Jobs told the New York Times: “We define everything that is on the phone. You don’t want your phone to be like a PC. The last thing you want is to have loaded three apps on your phone and then you go to make a call and it doesn’t work anymore. These are more like iPods than they are like computers.” By 2008, though, Jobs had apparently realized that in its quest to “define everything,” the company was leaving a lot of money on the table. The 120,000 apps you’ll now find in the iTunes App Store—with Apple collecting 30 percent of every paid-app sale—are testimony to the wisdom of the shift.

Given the smashing success of the App Store, you have to wonder why Apple has reverted to its black-ops secrecy culture for the iSlate (or the iPad, or whatever it’s going to be called). Presumably, Apple wants the device to be part of the larger ecosystem it’s building around digital content—music, movies, TV shows, apps, and soon books and magazines, if all the reports of Apple’s talks with publishers are to be believed. Wouldn’t the company have been better off working with its existing community of developers to figure out what features a tablet-style device should have? Couldn’t it have given iPhone developers a few hints about how the iSlate will work, allowing them to 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.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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  • Jerry

    @Dennis Forbes: You really don’t get it. Apple isn’t innovative because they do things no one else has done before — they’re innovative because they take product concepts that other companies have executed poorly and turn them into products that real human beings want to buy and use.

    Does anyone like Windows Mobile? In all the years that Windows Mobile has been out, have Windows Mobile phones ever sold as well as the iPhone?

    Yes, Microsoft has been pimping tablet computers for years … to what effect? Who do you know who has a Tablet PC? Do you want one? Whereas the expectation from Apple, based on their track record, is that Apple simply would not produce a tablet unless they had a compelling idea of how and why ordinary people would use it.

    Apple-bashers deride Apple for putting as much thought into design, interface ergonomics, and marketing as into engineering — which is like complaining about a general who puts just as much thought into logistics and supply as into combat tactics. You can’t have a successful company without considering every factor that affects sales, and Apple is successful because it sweats about factors of consumer psychology that other companies are only dimly aware exist.

  • http://www.yafla.com/dforbes/ Dennis Forbes

    “Apple-bashers deride Apple for putting as much thought into ”

    Strawman. I even said before that Apple executes well. Apple knows how to polish a product and make it something that people lust after. Only a fool would deny that.

    Executing very well (extremely well, even) is not the same thing as being innovative or original. Yet Apple-boasters always seem to fool themselves into thinking that Apple (which is the company that had to abandon their whole platform as a failure and “execute well” on top of PC hardware and FreeBSD) is some grand innovator.

  • http://www.boiarski.com Philos

    As an artist who has been a mac enthusiast since the first one, I see Jobs’ “vision” for his product is much like an artist’s creation. He has an artist’s sense of protecting his work, not wanting to be copied. And unlike some artists (DaVinci, Warhol, etc.) he can’t just let some collaborator paint and then sign it. Jobs wants to do the underpainting, mix the colors and lay in as many brushstrokes as possible in his creations. What some see as odd, I see as perfectly sensible. Sharing leads to stealing. As for the way other creative types embrace his vision, I still don’t see why you can’t expand your viewpoint to see how his vision, his obsessive creative pursuit of excellence, fits perfectly with other art tools. You want the best brushes, or other tools, why not want the most visionary and obsessively perfected computing tool, as well?

  • Jerry

    @Dennis Forbes: Defining innovation depends on your viewpoint. From the view of marketers, consumers, the press, and the general public, “execution” (building a sellable product that actually changes what people buy and what they use)” IS innovation, and building a prototype or an uninspiring product that no one wants to buy is NOT innovation.

    Apple has a huge reputation with non-engineering, non-technical people precisely because Apple works and speaks more directly to their concerns.

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  • Wade Roush

    Here’s another example, post-iPad announcement, of someone who apparently has the same queasy, ambivalent feelings I do about Apple’s need for control:

    http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/ipad

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  • http://www.stallman.org/ Richard M Stallman

    The writer finds it incomprehensible, perhaps even tragic, that my
    main computer is a netbook that gives me the freedom I have striven
    for since September 1983. His conclusion reflects a lacuna in the
    values that the whole article is based on. It values innovation and
    creativity, but not freedom.

    The article describes Apple as “closed”, but praises the “open
    innovation” in the apps that Apple chooses to permit users to install.
    I doubt the term “open” fits the censorship of the Apple app store.
    But I think “open” vs “closed” is a secondary issue anyway. I want my
    technology to respect my freedom; I want to use free software,
    software that the users control. Apple is the pioneer in putting
    chains on its users, and the only ethical use I know of for an iBad is
    reverse engineering.

    If the idea that freedom is at stake in our choice of software piques
    your curiosity, see http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/shouldbefree.html
    and http://www.gnu.org/gnu/the-gnu-project.html for more information.

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