Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Open

After Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO last week, Katherine Noyes wrote a particularly stupid piece on why Apple needs to embrace open source. 

 For business users, the company’s extreme vertical integration has not only created a daunting case of vendor lock-in, but has worked against the compatibility and interoperability that are most needed in this global and collaborative world.

Essentially, her argument boils down to the advantages that she perceives open-source to have, and why Apple is ultimately doomed with a closed-source strategy. 

 As far as I can surmise, Android is not winning based on some perceived merits of its usefulness, style or other subjective qualities. Rather, the reason it is (and will always be) beating iOS in market share is because it’s cheap to implement and free for third-party vendors to customise. 

Let’s examine two parallel realities in their neverending hypothetical. In the first, let’s assume Android were released on an exclusive piece of hardware anually. Here, Android is not open-source and manufacturing rights are licensed to a single hardware company. In this instance, Android probably would not be a serious iOS competitor. Note, for instance, the struggles of WebOS and Windows Phone 7. The former is a proprietary OS released on just a few devices over the course of its life so far. The latter OS exists on more phones, but is still largely irrelevant in the market. It’s a shame, as both of these are fine operating systems. 

In both cases, taking a vaguely similar strategy to the iPhone has failed. One may argue about whether it was marketing, implementation, hardware or whatever, but the reality is that a closed Android system would also probably be relegated to a similar scrap heap.

In the second scenario, iOS is released in 2007 to many manufacturers, with open, cheap (or free) licensing terms. My wager is that most vendors would opt to broadly install and promote iOS, even if Apple created the iPhone at the same time. Android would still arrive in 2008 with similar terms, but it probably  wouldn’t achieve anywhere near the success it has.

Noyes is probably right that open-source can dominate the market. But I don’t think Apple cares that much about their market share. See, although comScore’s recent report shows Apple with a 27% market share, Boy Genius Report reports Apple earning a whopping 66% of industry profits. At this point, market share isn’t that important to them. I think they’d like to increase a little by luring away BlackBerry customers, but they know they can’t win against a cheap operating system, especially when carriers and vendors can customise it as they wish.

Coming back to the Noyes piece, it’s worth noting that Apple does open-source some of their OS X developments. They also develop WebKit, the second-most popular browser engine around, and one that is open source. Apple does embrace this world of open and transparent, when it suits them. But it clearly does not serve them well in their mobile operating system. And, despite Android being on more phones than any other smartphone OS, it’s also not serving them well either.