Hard-nosed Thoughts on Apple, Closed & Open Systems

| Hidden Dimensions

“The demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots” — H.L. Mencken


The art of the sound bite is to encapsulate a complex idea into a few words that sounds convincing, but are devoid of any technical merit. The sound bite is intended to persuade, not enlighten. This is how Apple detractors use the phrase “Open systems are better.” But are they?

I couldn’t resist the opportunity to add my own perspective to Bryan Chaffin’s recent, excellent “Death Knell #56: Apple’s Closed System Doomed to Die.” Mr. Chaffin’s destruction of Paul Hochman’s thesis was complete, but also started me pondering.

I want to explore the concepts of closed and open systems from a different perspective.

First of all, people who aren’t trained in science love to wrap their arguments in the language of science. It gives them a simple analogy, suitable for a sound bite, and it lends respectability to their argument. For example, we’ve often seen the statement to the effect that our North American winters are getting harsher, so global warming must be a myth. Carrying that argument to an absurd extreme, to make a point, I could say that the ice cubes in my refrigerator are getting colder, so there can’t be global warming.

Allergy is an Open SystemSome open systems have their downsides

Next, it’s often very easy to use technical terms without understanding their origin or application. For example, we know that organisms need a robust environment that’s fairly open. Organisms need raw material, food and (generally) oxygen, and they need to be able to discharge organic waste. Lock a dog in a closet and it dies. So all open systems must therefore be good, right?

A parallel argument for open systems is reminiscent of what IBM did with the original IBM PC. While Apple was being rather closed with the Apple II in that the company didn’t license any other maker to build an Apple II, IBM made the specifications of the first PC open so that anyone could build their own PCs. And they did — in spades. Because of its open origins, the classic PC flourished.

The same arguments are being applied to Apple and iOS but without regard to what open really means. For example, consider yourself an open systems organism. You eat what you please and go where you please, but that doesn’t mean you should lick the toilet seat at a roadside gas station. There are always constraints and structure imposed on a healthy open system.

Mr. Hochamn lauded the open system MyTouch and SYNC Applink the Ford Motor Company uses compared to GM’s closed system. However, he conveniently omitted a discussion of how when users can tie outside systems into their car, they must still abide by the protocols that Ford enforces — or there would be chaos. He also neglected to point out how worrisome the security of our cars has become. Experts have shown how to unlock digital car locks remotely or introduce outside commands into the car’s computer system. (A perfect set up for a murder mystery, by the way.) No doubt GM feels that they are the ones ultimately responsible for the safety of the customer, and so they are going to maintain control. Does that sound like a good idea?

Apple’s Role

Apple, more than any other company, understands basic human nature. They know that consumer products need to have a structure so that both developers and customers can rely on predictable behavior. They also know that in the mobile world, customers tend to take things for granted: the mobile phone spends a lot of time in a pocket and isn’t as closely monitored, nor are monitoring tools as desired.

As a result, the idea of open is complex. iOS is open in the sense that FreeBSD, its underpinnings, is open. iOS is open in the sense that any individual can pay US$99, get into the developer program, and start writing apps. There are about 400,000. iOS is open in the sense that iOS API’s are public.

iOS is closed with respect to the developer being able to do anything he or she wishes without adult supervision. Apps that ridicule others, steal passwords, identity or secretly divulge a user’s location are forbidden by Apple. Whenever people are blocked from being able to fool or embezzle others, they squeal, so the frequent outrage against Apple’s developer rules has to be considered in the light of the traditional sleuthing practice: follow the money.

Apple RIP


Clearly, then, the term open is hardly a universal blessing and closed is hardly a term fit for universal derision. What’s really important is that if opponents of Apple can, through frequent and visible discourse, convince the general public that open systems are always beneficial then Apple’s policies can be undermined. If the first thing we think of when we hear “closed system” is a starving animal locked in a closet or an original Macintosh from 1984 to which hardly anything could be attached, then demagoguery wins.

Good Security is Always Closed

The security implications for the future are virtually at stake here. Recently, Symantec published a rather extensive report on the relative security of iOS and Android called “A Window Into Mobile Device Security.” This report does the heavy lifting of professionally examining the security posture of the two popular OSes, and the crux of the report is on page 17 where each OS is rated based on its security pillars and its resistance to various attacks. Android is found wanting.

But, like your kid eating off the restaurant floor, Android is a much more open system. So as long as we’re going to think about analogies to organic systems, we might as well face the fact that organic systems also need structure and curation. We try to stay warm, dry, fed and clean. That’s a closed, secure system, and we like it.

The next time you hear someone tout the superiority of open systems and how they’re genetically superior and enhance the gene pool of software, you’ll recognize their pseudo scientific language, persuasion technique and motivation. Then sneeze on them*.


* I’m only joking.

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Bryan Chaffin

GReat analysis, John. Thanks.


Yes, good analyses.

Though I would reiterate what I said on Bryan’s article. Open and Closed have become meaningless. More precisely they mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean. To some Open means Open Source. To others Open means they can install anything they want on the system. To others open means safe. Three perfectly good definitions of Open. Also three mutually exclusive definitions. Open Source is not necessarily safe. You can install anything you want on a Windows XP system but it’s not Open Source. A system that is turned off is safe but you can’t install anything you want on it. Open and closed have become epithets thrown around by fanboys. There may be a meaning at the root, but it’s all but lost.

I like your point that Good Security is Closed. People forget that.


I’ll second that. EXCELLENT!!!


Yes. That is what I have thought; but could never put into words. Thanks.


You know, Mr. M., there will be people who will read this excellent article and then conclude it’s okay to lick the toilet seat as long as it’s not in a roadside gas station.  grin

John Martellaro

aardman: Maybe those are the Windows Phone 7 users.

Lee Dronick

You know, Mr. M., there will be people who will read this excellent article and then conclude it?s okay to lick the toilet seat as long as it?s not in a roadside gas station.

Would that be a closed or open toilet seat smile


I like Apple because of the curation, the security and the ease of use. I’ve been using Apples since 86. Some of the road was bumpy back in Classic but X and iOS has been solid. To me Apple has my back, what I’ve seen of Android and Microsoft is they have your money. I was a auto mechanic for 35 years, I bought Snap-On and Stallwillie,and Matco and Hazet tools, they served me well and virtually never left me stranded. The 2nd tier tools like Craftsman and others could never cut the mustard in real service. I paid the Snap-On and Stallwillie,and Matco and Hazet premium prices because I depended on them. They had my back.
That is why I am a Apple customer just like the former tools of my career with Snap-On and Stallwillie,and Matco and Hazet tools. Thanks Apple for keeping my back.


As a result, the idea of open is complex. iOS is open in the sense that FreeBSD, its underpinnings, is open.

You had me until this part agreeing.  iOS’s source code isn’t out there for free or even the $99 developer price.  Thus this is a false comparison.

If I could say replace the “App Saving” feature in iOS to my super improved, 10x faster, 10x more robust version and that improves every app on my phone without jailbreaking the phone then you’d have a valid comparison.

Sadly, I can’t come up with a good clean replacement.  I’m inclined to say the iOS is an open community (anyone can develop apps for it), and iOS proper has “documented interface hooks” for doing tasks that require the OS’s help.  But it certain isn’t “open” in the sense of Open Source.

John Martellaro

mourning: the source code for iOS is an interesting issue. My understanding is that the underlying UNIX code, called Darwin, is the same for OS X and iOS.  iOS adds additional frameworks like Cocoa Touch and removes many unnecessary UNIX daemons.  But the core is the same—or Bertrand Serlet would have gone bananas!  Perhaps an Apple developer, deep on the matter, could add more to this.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Summary: The Mac sucks because developers don’t need permission to sell apps to end-users.


“IBM made the specifications of the first PC open so that anyone could build their own PCs. And they did ? in spades. Because of its open origins, the classic PC flourished.”

Just a quibble, but this isn’t entirely true. This is actually a case where openness backfired against the company, even if it was a boon for consumers.

IBM wanted to bring their personal computer to the new market quickly and at a competitive price. They used off-the-shelf parts (Quick and cheap), brought in an out-of-house team to do the OS rather than building it from scratch (Quick and cheap), and then published the docs for _most_ of their specs so peripheral developers and programmers would be encouraged to help them. They did NOT make the BIOS openly available, which was required to make an IBM Compatible PC. The fact that Microsoft could sell their DOS to other companies was a concession, not a basic design decision.

The result of that openness was that companies which could legally reverse-engineer the BIOS could make an IBM compatible PC. While the IBM PC platform became a standard, Microsoft benefited from the situation, not IBM, who was eventually squeezed out of the very market they created.


Come to think of it, the whole bit about “Open” versus “Closed” is marketing garbage.

The real issue is Choice: Choice is good for consumers, bad for businesses. Ford would love a world where everyone was forced to buy a Ford. But since Ford isn’t selling cellphones, letting customers choose which cellphone they want to work is a better selling point for dealing with customers. They, like any corporation, would happily sacrifice that “Openness” the moment there was a more profitable arrangement (like an exclusivity contract with a wealthy company, or selling their own brand of cellphones)

peter c

I’m going to throw the cat among the pigeons and say that the issue isn’t over Closed versus Open, because every system is both Closed AND Open. Systems survive by filtering at many different levels and filters are simultaneously closed and open. If they’re not, they’re not filters.

Likewise Systems are multilayered, or they’re not Systems. So the real issue is over Integration versus Fragmentation, that is: about what PARTS of each System are Closed and what aren’t.

This Fragmentation/Integration issue isn’t referring to the platform-level argument in the press. That is merely the manifestation of the deeper philosophical divergence dividing Google from Apple—their genetic code if you will. This level of the Fragmentation/Integration—Closed/Open—issue is how those Company-centric characteristics play out at the Developer level.

This has implications for the End-user, but they’re not the ones complaining. Are the Developers making it an issue, seeing it concerns them specifically? It doesn’t seem so. Who then? It seems to be the Techno-press watching from the sidelines. The next question to ask is, “Why?”.  The answer: “Follow the money”.

My take is that keeping the ball in play creates a spectacle, spectacles draw spectators and each hit draws dollars.

Of course others are drawn in innocently to rebut or defend the argument, and so it goes developing a life of its own, to add to the spectacle.

Do you know there are still commies?

John, you have just refuted the arguments that the commies in Japan are using to make their points.  They substitute the liberalism for an open system.


“While the IBM PC platform became a standard, Microsoft benefited from the situation, not IBM, who was eventually squeezed out of the very market they created.”

And this is essentially what Google has done as well. I suspect as time goes by they will restrict Android further and further (likely out of simple necessity) and in the meantime will happily capitalize on the work of every developer that is in effect working for them for free. Will it backfire on them? Who knows. Microsoft certainly had a pretty good run.

I don’t pretend that any corporation is my BFF, but I have found Apple to be more solid than not as well over the years. I actually sat down and did the math once (out of boredom, mind) and though up-front the costs were higher, I have saved thousands in comparison to my friends and colleagues who’ve been stuck with Microsoft leveraged over the same time frame. There was even a slight edge over Linux in my case due to frequency of hardware replacement. Alas, I didn’t make a chart. wink


Come to think of it, is there a non-roadside gas station?

Ross Edwards

There are thousands.  Watercraft and aircraft require fuel as well, and many boats use regular gasoline.

Lee Dronick

ome to think of it, is there a non-roadside gas station?

As Ross said, and as being retired Navy to which I can personally attest, there are other things that need refueling. Maybe it is just us old timers who remember “roadside gas stations” as they seem to disappearing, these were places with a reputation for having filthy restrooms. New gas stations all seem to have food available and because of that they get more frequent health department inspections.

John Martellaro

Hey, guys. I just want to thank all of you for your great contributions here, both humorous and technical. 



Great article John:  Lawyers think of open versus closed not as better or worse or as a prison versus freedom, but as a collection of rights granted by IP and contract law.  The real question is whether and how those respective collections of rights and the ecosystems that they produce benefit various constituencies:  such as users; developers; Apple and its employees, and its shareholders.  Right now the rights granted by Apple seemed to be preferred by customers and developers, who have voted with their wallets and resources, much to benefit of Apple’s shareholders and employees.  So today, anyway, Apple’s collection of rights beats Google’s pseudo-open collection of rights, at least when it comes to profitability and revenues.


Nicely argued, John.

Just getting to this, during a quiet moment at an airport.

The arguments around open closed are not, and have never been, about virtue and altruism; but about business philosophy and strategy. I concur with geoduck, it means different things depending on context, and the same applies to discussions about operating systems. In what context do we mean that a system is open or closed?

But at the end if the day, the companies that have adopted these approaches have done so primarily for one, fundamentally organic reason, to disseminate their product as widely as possible (think species reproduction), and usually for profit.

In a word, companies have chosen the approach they believe gives them the best competitive advantage.

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