Apple, Microsoft, and openness

If you allow yourself to look at big corporations through the filter of conventional wisdom, all sorts of distortions emerge. Case in point: A couple of premier Web 2.0 sites this week praised Yahoo and Apple for "getting" what Google and Microsoft don't. But a closer look at the example they used shows that it's just business as usual.

If you allow yourself to look at big corporations through the filter of conventional wisdom, all sorts of strange distortions emerge.

Case in point: Tim O'Reilly approvingly quotes this snippet from a post by Michael Arrington about Apple's new .mac webmail service:

What users want is a rich internet interface for email. What they don’t want is four different interfaces for four different email accounts. What Yahoo and Apple get, and what Google and Microsoft don’t, is that to “own” the user you have to allow them to access competitor’s services as well as your own. Google has the best pure free email service on the Internet. But they don’t have the best interface. Yahoo does. And now Apple is combining the power of Yahoo’s open approach to email with the ability to sync their service to a desktop client. [emphasis in original]

To which I say, "Huh?"

Since when does Apple "allow [users] to access competitor's services as well as [their] own?" Does any version of iTunes allow a customer to purchase music from Real's Rhapsody service, or for that matter from Yahoo Music? (No.) Does Apple allow users of other software and portable devices to purchase music from its stores? (No.) Why can't you transfer Yahoo Music Unlimited purchases to your iPod? (Because Apple doesn't allow access to its own services by any competitors. It doesn't license its FairPlay DRM to anyone else, either.)

Is this wrong? Depends on your point of view, I guess. If I were an officer or shareholder of Apple, I would fiercely protect the monopoly I've created in the music business and would only open it up if forced to do so. Just as Microsoft does with its Windows monopoly. If I believed that openness was the Holy Grail of computing, I'd have a hard time with either company.

The partnership between Apple and Yahoo in their webmail clients is just that: a partnership. It's frankly not all that different from the deal that Microsoft and Yahoo have worked out to allow their instant messaging clients to interoperate with one another. Does that deal mean that Microsoft is suddenly committed to openness? Of course not, any more than this Apple-Yahoo deal implies a new spirit of openness in Cupertino.

A commitment to openness isn't compatible with the business model of any large publicly traded corporation, regardless of how cool its industrial designs may be. Opening up selective parts of your business is just smart business. Knowing when to keep them closed is also just smart business. If you want to convince me that Apple is suddenly becoming more open, let me know when they allow OS X to run on hardware they didn't build. Or even in virtual machines, the way every other modern OS does.


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