The New Apple Walled Garden

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Geeks and enthusiasts wearing WordPress t-shirts, using laptops covered in Data Portability, Microformats and RSS stickers lined up enthusiastically on Friday to purchase a device that is completely proprietary, controlled and wrapped in DRM. The irony was lost on some as they ran home, docked their new devices into a proprietary media player and downloaded closed source applications wrapped in DRM.

I am referring to the new iPhone – and the new Apple iPhone SDK that allows developers to build ‘native’ applications. The announcement was greeted with a web-wide standing ovation, especially from the developer community. The same community who demand all from Microsoft, feel gifted and special when Apple give them an inch of rope. When Microsoft introduced DRM into Media Player it was bad bad bad – and it wasn’t even mandatory, it simply allowed content owners a way to distribute and sell content from anywhere.

Apple has wrapped the iPhone SDK in enough licensing, security controls and right management that it would make the Microsoft Active Desktop team blush. The phone and platform that is certain to soon take second spot behind Symbian in the smart phone market is also the most restricted and closed. Applications can only be installed from a single source, iTunes, and open source applications and distribution is near impossible. How do you install an iPhone application without iTunes? Where are the community advocates arguing for a standard interface, openess and free code?

What is more worrying is what the next move could be. Now that there is an AppStore with applications in iTunes, why wouldn’t Apple move next to distribute all applications through iTunes – both desktop and mobile? There is no reason for them not to – the response to AppStore has been so enthusiastic that it is almost assured that you will start seeing desktop apps distributed in the same way. As soon as users are ground into looking at everything through iTunes, distribution of software in the traditional manner would be near impossible. Apple would become the gatekeeper, and both developers and users will enthusiastically pay the toll in exchange for pretty devices with pretty applications.

Apple has a very strong following in the open source community, and I can no longer understand it nor justify my own support (I am writing this on a Macbook). They built OS X on FreeBSD (a project I have enthusiastically supported, contributed to and been a user of for 10 years or more), they built Safari on KHTML, and are now using libraries such as SproutCore in MobileMe. They have taken open source and everything it built and leveraged it to get to market faster – yet they have now, with iTunes and the new SDK, built a layer on top of it that excludes others. For Apple, open source is great when it furthers their own goals, but not when using it with Apple software where it may further the goals of others.

The solution is simple. If you truly believe in open standards, open source and the good that it has created, then don’t accept it. The spirit of open source was about building on the work of others in a transparent fashion, as the gains further the common good of all. Despite not taking over the desktop market, the philosophy and its resultants have destroyed the old enterprise market and many others. Open source and standards keep Microsoft and other big companies on their toes, the movement as a whole and the philosophy is very real. The solution isn’t to adopt new licenses to try and prevent this, as it results in the mess that is GPL v 3.

It should be very possible to attach a simple BSD license to code, and if a large company utilizes the effort from others in a way that is unacceptable – the market should be able to sort that out, we simply wont buy it. The community needs to do more than just wear their support for openess and standards on their sleeves (and on their laptops). The problem with Apple is that the blind demand is driven by a distorted reality, so those same developers who poured thousands of hours into the BSD kernel now turn around and purchase an iPhone running that code, but it is now tied up in DRM, licenses and restrictions placed there by others.

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  • Chris W.

    Ah, who cares. It’s an amazing product.

  • Peter Cooper

    Wow, someone has put into words the vague sense of uneasiness I’ve had over the past few days. You’re spot on!

    I couldn’t entirely articulate why, but yesterday I decided I need to revert from being 100% Mac to a more 50/50 mix between the Mac and Linux (that is, an “open” OS on “open” hardware) to stay sane. My reasoning for this was that Apple has totally forgotten about their old customer base and is only focused on being all shiny and hip to extend marketshare.. that reasoning still stands to a point, but what you are saying is true.

    One thing that’s extremely odd, and has raised complaints from many fronts, is the lack of any SSH type app on the iPhone. Surely someone would have attempted to port one.. it’s a rudimentary job. Seems Apple probably don’t want one on there.

  • Chris Saad

    Nik – I am glad someone is cutting through the crap on this issue. The biggest open advocates are also the biggest Apple advocates and it’s just ironic and silly.

    Great post mate.

  • Peter Cooper

    For what it’s worth, the provider Apple chose in the UK messed me around enough with not getting me my iPhone 3G that I canceled the order. On reflection, I think I had a lucky escape, and probably won’t be getting one in future. The fact that Apple has no interest in satisfying their old customers who’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars with them in front of newcomers who see “ooh, shiny!” demonstrates a significant change in Cupertino. Apple is no longer a brand with a hardcore of supporters, but a brand that’s trying to be everyone’s best friend.

  • Peter Kirn

    Actually, people *might* care once there’s an alternative. It’ll be interesting to see how the Linux/Android stack evolves. And of course part of the problem — part of what might keep Android from wide distribution — is all of this crap the carriers love, which apparently Apple either caved into or signed up for. But until there’s a strong alternative (ahem, sorry Windows Mobile), or more stuff happening in open mobile browsers (ahem, Mozilla), it’s kind of moot … which I think explains the lack of criticism. People don’t see a choice. If another “amazing product” did the same stuff AND was open, I think we’d have a different discussion going.

  • Rob Olson

    Gah- you’re right.

    I hope that work on the third party Jailbreak app continues so that we will see a way to install iphone apps outside of iTunes and the app store.

  • Dave Winer

    Why don’t you buy a puppet to ridicule Apple and bend them to your will. Isn’t that how you TechCrunch guys get your way?? :-)

  • PXLated

    If open source could ever build something as polished and easy to use as Apple has in all their platforms and could come up with something original we may have some competition and they may be considered. They didn’t, they aren’t, they probably won’t. Sorry, I’ll take the closed Apple till things change. Most, even the geeks, don’t care.

  • Ernie Oporto

    If you don’t like the DRM apps, you are not under any obligation to use anything from the App Store – some don’t care about the apps. And you can always rip your own DRM free MP3s from your own CDs if you haven’t already torrented the music – no need to buy music from iTunes.

    My phone calls are not wrapped in DRM. Remember that first and foremost, it’s a phone.

  • Nik Cubrilovic

    @9. Ernie, DRM apps is fine. So is DRM music – developers should have a choice. But don’t take all this open source code and then built a platform on top of it that makes it mandatory.

    Im not anti-DRM, just pro-choice.

  • vish

    incredibly well put. while apple is designing cool products (not all of them) their approach is putting it all at risk to implode in a few years IMO. Jobs is making some of his old mistakes and while the market appears to be rewarding them right now, instead of building a great long haul company he will only invoke the ire of the developer community and ultimately negative reaction from consumers as well. someone will strike the right balance of openness and quality and design and will clean their clock….

  • Vaughn

    A well made point.

    I think the crux of the issue is that Apple has built upon OSS in multiple instances. Is there any gauge as to how much they’ve contributed back? Anecdotal evidence suggests it’s been little.

  • Uway

    i feel a little guilty for explosion of apple back in the early 2000. When i switched over from windows to mac i was instantly convinced that windows was only here to make my life a living hell. My experience with a mac made me tell everybody that uses a windows machine to switch, i would tell them there are no bugs, no crashes and no viruses. Till this day im still on a mac and ironically i want more mac stuff. Maybe because i don’t have nothing else besides a computer and i have never owned a ipod. What is keeping my intrest with a ipod touch is that it will allow me to be mobile and still blog without having to buy a actual laptop. i know for a fact i could not afford a iphone so it doesn’t bother me that i will never get one.

  • michael arrington


  • Boiarski

    Ex-squeeze me but I seem to remember an entity with a name made up of “teeny” and “flacid” which was on ummmm, was it 95 FREAKIN’ percent of all computer devices. I seem to recall Mr. Dell, scoffing at AAPL and the masterful one with the disdain of a ronin about to play samurai. After destroying most of its competition, then allowing Apple to Live, Redmond is somehow blameless that its innovative opposite, yang to its yin, might grow to be its equal. This is not a walled garden. It’s a fort.

  • Boiarski

    Funny, the phone has already been hacked and a “how to” is up on the web. If some device is created by a specific team within a certain overall vision, is that object not patentable? I would think Mr. Jobs’ anal retentive, obsessive, control-freak genius deserves some monetary reward for its continuing compulsive excellence. We call it capitalism and the marketplace. You suck; you lose. You excel, you win! Go play Linux. Do not begrudge a company a few security and management rights when they are relentlessly attacked by hackers round the clock –

  • not me

    Apple’s put a lot of work in building and extending the open source WebKit which is actively being used by some of Apple’s competitors in non-Apple iPhones.

    Or does that not count for some reason?

  • not me

    Er, I meant “non-apple phones”, not “non-apple iPhones” obviously. Nokia uses the open source WebKit stuff from Apple in their own phones for instance.

  • Mohammad Al-Ubaydli

    @8 Firefox is the gold standard for polish and quality, a standard most open source software does not reach, but a standard that for me is just as good or even better than Apple’s.

    Open source software has undergone a shift in innovation from simple commoditization of existing tools to creating new innovations unseen and unreplicated. I do not just meant the dominance of Apache, I mean wikis, which Ward Cunningham invented and open sourced as a new software category unseen before.

    And I think the best is yet to come, even though the change in perceptions takes time.

    I am holding out for the Google phone precisely because of the reasons outlined in this (excellent) post. I am writing this post on an Apple iMac because I enjoy Apple’s products the most when they embrace open standards – Firefox web browser, PDF support baked in, and built on top of Unix BSD. As soon as Apple starts acting as a primar donna with proprietary standards (iTunes DRM music anyone) I start pining for Bill Gates whose operating system was more open than Apple’s before Apple adopted open source software.

    @16 I’m all for capitalism and the market. I just disagree with you as to who will win through them. But let’s have this argument in a year’s time with a few more data points behind us :-)

  • taffey

    Apple let Microsoft relase vista and delayed the Leopard launch to take advantage of the crappy user exprience upgrade MS was offering pulling in a whole bunch of pissed of users.

    Is google doing the same with the gPhone? Wait until 2 or 3 million shlumps are stuck with the DRM laden iPhone and serious complaints start to flood the net and then they release the magnificent and open gPhone for all to love and enjoy… ok wishfull thinking but who really knows. I will wait a bit to see what happens.

  • Daniel Spisak

    Bitch, moan, whine, complain.

    But…but….Apple took “our” open source code and made something USEFUL with it. OMG!

    Look, if Apple was violating the source code licenses for the projects they are using then say that. But dont bitch because they took work that was freely given by others and used by Apple’s engineers to make something new and cool possible.

    Your entire argument is basically bitching about how Apple has made a DRM platform on top of or with the help of Open Source projects. Yet you completely fail to see the argument that the whole point of Open Source was so that PEOPLE COULD USE THE SOURCE TO DO WHATEVER THEY SAW FIT WITHIN THE LICENSE.

    Seriously, stop pissing in the cheerios man.

  • Nik Cubrilovic

    @Daniel – thats not my argument. I think its fine for them to do whatever they want, its why I support BSD over GPL. My argument is lets call it what it is and not delude ourselves.

    If they gave me the *option* to do what I would like on the platform I would be happy, for now, I am not buying into it

  • TSW

    Hi Nik,

    Don’t buy the iPhone. Then again, if you’re pro-choice, why are you lamenting those that do? Typical “open source”, “free software” thinking. You sound like those that want everyone to have free speech, as long as they’re saying the right things…

    The iPhone is amazing, I’m excited to start writing apps for it. That’s the first time I can say that about any mobile device. The reason I’m excited is because the hardware and the software are designed so well to work together. The reason that is so is precisely because of the tight control Apple maintains over what they produce.

    If you don’t like it, fine, wait for Android. But please, spare me the outrage. What a joke. I thought this was a new site for IT folks. This is Slashdot re-hashed, I guess I can slide you out of Google Reader now…

  • TSW

    BTW, I’m no Apple flunkie. During work, I write nothing but Perl, C#, and Java. I’ve never written a line of Objective-C. I have a Mac at home and PCs at work. But the iPhone — it’s no shit. This is hands-down the coolest device I’ve used in 25 years.

  • TSW

    Man, I just re-read this article. What a waste of 10 minutes.

    I can boil the article down in two sentences:

    You think you like BSD. You really like GPL, but don’t realize it.

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