Hard-nosed Thoughts on Apple, Closed & Open Systems

“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.