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

[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 … Next Page »

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

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