Closed vs. Open, Control vs. Chaos -- What's Best for Apple, the iPhone and iPad?

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Yesterday at Macworld two events helped clarify something I've been discussing with Dieter for a while now -- Apple, the iPhone and iPad, and closed vs. open systems, control vs. chaos. These two events were a presentation by John Gruber of Daring Fireball concerning the 10 biggest problems faced by Apple, and a brief conversation with Leo Laporte of TWiT about Google Buzz.

As part of his Round Robin BlackBerry review, Dieter departed on a rant about BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) of epic proportions. A closed communications protocol, he argued, was untenable. BlackBerry users create incredible amounts of content in BBM (yes, chat is content) but it's all completely closed off and owned by RIM. If you leave BlackBerry, you can't take your BBM content with you. If RIM ever disappears, all your BBM content is lost. Something like Gmail on the other hand, works across platform and if you switch from BlackBerry to iPhone to Android, you enter your Gmail account and everything is there. Since you can access it via standard protocols like POP and IMAP, you can also make local copies and upload them to a different service (i.e. upload your mail to a non-Google IMAP folder).

Laporte made a similar comment about Twitter and Facebook. If either Twitter or Facebook were to fail, all your status updates, all your wall posts, all your friends and those you follow and/or follow you would be gone.

I don't know if Google Buzz will prove to be an open protocol and system for sharing status, location, and relationships, and certainly it's implementation shows signs of the typical Google "release now, fix later, polish never" model, but something needs to.

And this brings me rather circuitously back to Apple and the iPhone. As much as a certain segment decries Apple as "closed", in terms of protocols they're remarkably open. They use IMAP for mail, and open-sourced CalDAV and CardDAV for calendaring and contacts. They use WebDAV for web directories and WebKit for Safari. iChat supports most IM protocols, including Jabber. They use BSD Linux and the Darwin kernel for the core of Mac and iPhone.

Apple is generally built on top of open technologies, and one of their core strengths is melding that open architecture with tightly controlled (i.e. proprietary) user interface layers (and developer APIs, and App Store review processes).

For some, that last part is an absolute deal breaker. But they have Ubantu and Open Moko. (Yes, even Android is closed -- you can't muck about with Gmail or Google Maps apps). For mainstream users, however, the front end, the user experience, "just works" to the point where it's become a cliche.

I said it previously in my Round Robin summation, to use Google you must give up privacy, to use Apple you must give up control. (I don't even want to think about what I'm giving up to use Google on Apple!)

So proprietary interfaces to open technologies -- how does that work for us? What happens when we use something not controlled by Apple?

John Gruber suggested AT&T as an example. Indeed, he listed it a one of Apple's problems. Now, some people get great AT&T service while others have connection problems that have become near-legendary. Either way, it's hurt media and mainstream perceptions about the iPhone.

Gruber also mentioned Big Media (movie and TV studios, music labels) as a problem. They want to charge more than the market will bear (certainly enough to make free-as-in-torrent an alternative) and make less available via iTunes than via a retro 1980s corner video store.

Is it a coincidence that some of the main aspects of the iPhone and iTunes that Apple has absolutely no control over are some that cause the greatest amount of user frustration?

(The App Store and its review process mostly create developer frustration, and Gruber listed this as a problem as well, though one that's slightly improving since the holiday shut-down).

So, we come back to and down to Apple liking to control the user-facing aspects of the iPhone (and iPod touch, and soon, iPad) but using and promoting open standards for a lot of the technology underneath. While this approach might clash philosophically with some users (and again, Android, Palm, etc. aren't open, they're just more open) and practically for others (power users who want the control themselves), its proved remarkably effective for casual, mainstream users, and for power-users willing to give up some control for a better experience.

Except for that part about AT&T and Hollywood, but then those are controlled with little concern for user experience...

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, The TV Show, Vector, ZEN & TECH, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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There are 20 comments. Add yours.

Greg Braddock says:

I've never had this concern with any other phone and I don't now. I just don't think this is a major concern for the average consumer. Everybody I speak to that I've met and I bring this up, the response is always the same, "what will that do?"
I don't care about personalization or forcing features on a phone that it wasn't built for. I hear jailbreakers complain all the time about battery life and I've also heard some of them say they get pretty decent battery life.
I say if it's a major concern for all iPhone users, open the damn phone but I really believe this is a small part of the phone community. Keep it closed as far as I'm concerned.

Mike Manzano says:

For phones, I agree. However for something like the iPad, this "closedness" will clash with preconceived notions on what's "allowed" on a general-purpose computer.

lxxvii says:

I say lock it down by default, but have the option should you choose it open it up. A switch in settings that opens the device up to other sources e.g. Jailbreak apps, would suffice. Give people a warning and tell them the implications, then let them make up their own minds.

s.davis9 says:

Definitely agree with Philip

icebike says:

@Mike Manzano:
I agree in general.
I could see two forms for the iPad, closed for Ma and Pa Polyester, and open (OSX) for J. Random Hacker, or corporate use.
If your DVD player is still blinking midnight you get the Closed version and more than likely it will do everything you need it to do.
But locked down is not going to fly in the corporate world.
@Rene: tow = two.

Mobile Virgin says:

i agree with bothe mike and phillip. But I think that consumers dnt realize the power they hold. One of the most brilliant things that Google and Microsoft have jumped on (especially wirh w7 as of late for the latter) is that their products are user controled. whatever the user wants it gets, the proof is in their domination of their fields. Even the iphone gives u a certain amount of leeway if used properly and we have seen what that has done for the apple and att.

Joe McG says:

I've been jailbroken for about 6 months, and have been really surprised how well written the jailbroken apps in Cydia are. I used to have a Blackberry, and you would get all kinds of garbage that would screw up your phone.
I would say the Cydia apps are AT LEAST on par with the App store apps, and are probably better. And, let's face it, I've never seen garbage come out of Cydia like the latest official Facebook app. Still waiting for notification sounds to work...
So, what I am saying is, the unofficial apps are legit. Nothing to be afraid of.

Jellotime91 says:

An open cloud if controlled chaos... :)

Rob86 says:

I say give us the option like my droid has a option that let's you download from open source but let's you know do it at your own risk. Just a thought

Jellotime91 says:

@Joe McG:
for apps that change the whole iPhone experience sure jailbreak apps are better. But compare a jailbroken game to an official one and you'll see where the quality concerns arise..
The way I see it there's nothing wrong with it for me! I have my app store apps, I can do a 20 second jailbreak and also get bitesms, backgrounder, proswitcher, and other jailbreak apps that are now essential to me. I would disagree with the warranty-voiding, but, all you have to do is simply restore your iPhone before you bring it in and there you go. I've done it like 5 times now including sending it in via mail.

L says:

It really depends on the user and the users needs... the majority of people don't even use half the functions their phones have. I think that everyone should have the choice to customize their products to their own needs though.
http://www.diverse-group.com/menu/blog.html

Paul says:

I think Apple's approach of placing these controls on the iPhone has made it the big succuss it has been. They need to control the user experiance so you reduce performance problems with the phone. I think as the hardware expands overtime to more powerful hardware they will slowly open it. Again, they don't want to jeopordize the user experiance.

Suspenders says:

Your credibility discussing open source would be improved if you could at least learn the names. This is at least the third time you've written "Ubantu," and I've seen people correct you before.

Bear says:

To add on to what Suspenders is saying, it might also help to know what you're talking about.
"They use BSD Linux and the Darwin kernel for the core of Mac and iPhone."
No. First, BSD is not Linux. BSD is a Unix-like operating system that Apple drew much of the code for Darwin from. For a while they also, in a very un-Apple-like fashion, pushed their own enhancements back to the BSD community via the Open Darwin project. Alas, Open Darwin was shut down some time ago. Technically Linux is a kernel and nothing more. There is no part of Linux in OS X, mostly due to liscencing issues.
This may seem like a small issue, but for some of us (especially people who read blogs like this) these factual errors are a big annoyance, and hinder credibility of the blog.

Visi says:

Ubantu? Rene do you mean Ubuntu?

Ray says:

I like the current setup: having to jailbreak. And even the jailbreak community is "controlled" to a degree. It's been a while since I checked, but last time I did, wasn't Saurik testing submitted apps to see if they worked, or did what they said they did? (I could be wrong).

JT says:

@Philip
as much as veryine wants apple to do this, I believe this is highly unlikely. Think about it, they've got 100 million? Ppl on the iPhone/iPod and how many actually know about jailbreaking? I'd say 5%. There maybe more but they'd be very amateur at it. Now once the general population begins to experiment, it opens the door to potential problems they may face. This could be user error or issues in the jb apps. This just leads to an enormous amount of customer care support. I just don't see this happening at this point in time.

lxxvii says:

@JT
I agree that my suggestion is highly unlikely. I understand that there are very few people who Jailbreak at the moment, this is probably due to the complexity. There are so many different tools, each with a different set of rules for different models. It’s not easy to understand. Once you have your device Jailbroken you have to be careful when new a firmwares comes out, and hope that there is still a loop hole in the code to enable you to continue to use Cydia apps.
By having a simple switch built within the firmware makes, it easier for a user to make the choice, they dont have to worry about losing all there non Apple approved apps each time a new firmware revision is released. Apple can make the warning as big as they like, they can say enabling this removes Apple support from your device, and a system restore will be required should any issues arrise just the same as Jailbreaking.
Personally, I would like an easier way to make the choice.