OPINION: Post-Jobs, Apple needs to open up

There’s no denying that the departure of Steve Jobs as Apple CEO is the end of an era. It’s difficult to think of any other leader as synonymous with a brand as he has been.

There’s also no denying Apple’s contributions to technology and, indeed, Western culture in recent years.

Now that Jobs has stepped down, however, Apple has a great opportunity. Rather than maintain its completely closed and locked-down approach to the technologies it makes, the time is right for Apple to open up. Besides creating a more sustainable strategy for Apple, such a move would perform a great service for consumers, businesses and the world.

‘We Know What’s Best for You’

Apple will obviously never become an open source company, of course–I’m not suggesting it should. What I do think the company needs to do, though, is to recognize the openness that is increasingly changing the world we live in.

Transparency and accountability, for instance, are now expected by consumers and citizens of the corporations and governments that exist to serve them; just look at Wikileaks for proof. On the corporate side, consumers are now demanding that companies open up about everything from product quality to pricing.

Apple’s long-standing paternalistic and often arrogant approach flies in the face of this new “transparency tyranny (PDF),” as it’s been called. The company’s longtime reliance on secrecy and its “we know what’s best for you” attitude isn’t going to be a sustainable one over the years.

An Unsustainable Strategy

Same goes for the inner workings of Apple’s technology, which has traditionally been presented to consumers from on high as a “black box” to be used but not understood.

That’s had significant security implications, as we saw with the arrival of MacDefender, which made it clear once and for all that the company’s “security through obscurity” strategy just doesn’t work.

Apple’s relatively small desktop market share has protected it there so far, but if it hopes to grow in the future, it will increasingly find itself a target for malware, just as Windows has. Unfortunately, because both are closed source, only the companies themselves–with the inevitably finite set of resources at their disposal–can fix any vulnerabilities that arise.

Again, that closed strategy just isn’t going to be sustainable over time.

Extreme Lock-In

Apple’s “black box” strategy also flies in the face of the crowdsourcing trend that’s increasingly being used by companies and organizations to elicit consumers’ participation in key decisions and the early stages of product design.

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.

Then, of course, there’s the matter of the software patents Apple currently uses to protect its “black box” technologies so aggressively. Patents have apparently become a central part of Apple’s strategy, costing the company–and its customers–vast sums of money and inevitably delivering a blow to innovation.

Tied Up in Court

Business, government and individual users around the globe have already been turning to open source software such as Linux for cost, security, customizability, interoperability and freedom from vendor lock-in, among other reasons. But as companies like Apple and Microsoft become increasingly tied up in the courts, I believe open source is also going to be the one area of software left in which innovation can continue and thrive.

The bottom line here is that no organization can be an island anymore. Apple may still enjoy a religiously devoted fan base, and it certainly does a lot of things right. For the future, though, it needs to recognize that closed, secret, locked-in and locked-down is unlikely to be a winning strategy in this increasingly open and global world.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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