The people I meet are often befuddled by my level of interest and support for open-source projects and technology like Ubuntu and Android. I can sympathize, being around anyone who cares a bit “too much” about anything can make you uncomfortable. I write today mainly to organize my thoughts and hopefully illustrate the origin of (if not justify) the interest I have for all things open. As a scientist, I see evidence everyday about how the openness of ideas and technology have positively affected society and prompted further innovation. One person or company makes a discovery and other groups are able to refine the discovery and make new discoveries using the previous advancement. Keeping information, ideas, science and technology open is crucial for future development. This is not to say that people and corporations don’t have a right to profit off their hard earned innovations and particular implementations of an idea. But, no one should have the right to turn general ideas into personal or corporate property. As a whole, we benefit mankind more (and ourselves in return) when we develop, share, and collaborate freely. The next big leap forward may come from someone or some group halfway around the world based on something we share here. In my opinion, there is no company in the tech-world who puts itself at odds with this philosophy more so than Apple. Below, I discuss, in a way that I hope illustrates why I like open-projects such as Ubuntu and Android, my reasons for not using Apple products. The use of Apple as a foil in this article is in no small part due to the troubling actions they have taken this week to stifle competition in the mobile market.
1. Apple’s software is not open-source. (with a couple exceptions). This is not necessary a deal breaker for me (I do use a lot of closed-source software in niche cases when it does the job better), but it is important enough to make me prefer open-source projects 90% of the time. Most Apple software being closed-source means interested developers cannot look at the source-code that is used to run the various Apple programs including OSX, iTunes etc… Apple is by no means alone in this category; Microsoft, Adobe and many other companies also protect their code. Most people don’t even want to see the source code; it is likely too mind-bogglingly complex to the average computer user to do anything with. So, what is the big deal? Well, paying for closed-source software is a lot like buying a car where the hood has been welded shut. You are not allowed to tweak the engine or replace a faulty component. Sure, most people wouldn’t do that themselves anyway, but what if nobody could?! You couldn’t bring it to the mechanic to have a look at it. Car and driver magazine wouldn’t be allowed to review the engine design or do a safety analysis. On a literal note, if the software in Toyota’s braking system wasn’t closed, it is likely their problems could have been avoided – or at least discovered and patched much earlier. I choose to use open-source software whenever possible because I and millions of people around the world can look at it, learn from it, help improve it and make it more robust, and, most importantly, use it to start our own projects. Even if you don’t want to look at the code yourself, you have to admit there is something very powerful about this idea. The ability to use, contribute and improve existing software is a great stimulus for innovation. There would be no Amazon, Google, ebay or TiVo today if it wasn’t for open-source software called Linux. Apple OSX is, itself, built upon the open-source operating-system BSD; Apple uses this free and open-software generously but stingily contributes few improvements (particularly the UI) back to the community. Despite the philosophical appeal of open development, it is actually the results of this development model (and not the philosophy itself) that I really like. Because the Ubuntu operating system is open-source, it is able to fit my needs and wants in ways that Apple’s or Microsofts’ software could never come close to replicating. I can have the beauty of OSX, the flexibility of Windows and the power and performance neither could hope to have.
Despite my appreciation for open-sourciness, I do actually use some closed-source software. Like most practical people, when closed-source software fulfills a niche better than that of open-source projects, I will choose the one that does the job best. So, perhaps I have not yet completely justified my anti-Apple stance. Afterall, I said earlier that Apple was a worse fit than even Microsoft, and, so far, they are looking only equally bad.
2. Apple is not open-anything. Although Microsoft’s Windows is closed source, it (and Ubuntu of course) can at least be run on any hardware you like – from a virtual machine to a netbook to even a Mac. If you want, you can go to the store and buy an awesome new video card to spiff up your Windows or Linux computer without having to buy a completely new one. Apple OSX on the other hand can only be legally run on Apple hardware. In the above example about the car, now, not only can you not open your the hood of the car, but you can only use Apple tires and fill your car up at Apple gas stations (think iPod + iTunes). If you get a flat tire, you either have to pray that you are still under warranty and Apple feels like helping you or get an entirely new car. There are people (the “hackintosh”) community who disregard the law and put OSX on non-Apple hardware. Apple has made it clear, though, that this is illegal and has brought litigation against companies for doing it, even when they pay full price for the software. Which leads me to ask the hackintosh community: why do you support a company that treats you like criminals for using the software you purchased in the way you want? Apple consistently goes out of its way to break support for its products with 3rd party applications. If you want to use a different media player than iTunes, Apple has (and likely will again) break support for future iPods and future updates. In a move that is borderline monopolistic, Apple only wants you to put music and movies on your iPod through its anointed application, iTunes, where it can sell you DRM movie/audiobook (yes I know the books come from Audible and other stores use DRM) files that cannot be played on other devices or in other programs. When you upgrade to a different machine, you will find out that you didn’t actually own the movies/books/music you bought from Apple. Even if you do like iTunes, do you really think it is ok that nobody should get any choice? I don’t.
3. They are even closed about other software you can install. Want Google-voice on your phone? Want a Super Nintendo emulator? An app that shows some skin? A wifi detector? What about the ability to watch hulu on your new $800 tablet? (Even if you know html5 is better than the closed-off flash) You can if you are using Android; you can’t if you use an Apple iPhone of iPad. Why? Because daddykins Steve Jobs doesn’t think you need to. He knows what is best for everyone. Why continue to use (or worse develop for) the iPhone platform when Apple might pull your favorite app from the market at any time? As Molly Wood from CNET says, “it’s an abusive relationship.” Sure, you can jailbreak your phone to add a bunch of apps Apple doesn’t want you to, but then, once again, you are breaking the law and are at Apple’s mercy. To risk sounding like a broken record, why support a company that treats you like a criminal? I choose not to.
4. The final straw. Not only does Apple control exactly how you can use any Apple device, they now want to take away your choice to use any other device as well. This week they brought a lawsuit against HTC, the developer of the majority of Android phones, alleging 20 Apple patent violations. Many of these patents seem to be comprised of trivial ideas that should be non-patentable and/or ideas Apple itself stole from other companies. It is clear that Apple is scared of the consumer choice that competition brings and is scared of the innovation that is possible within the open Android framework. Patents were intended to promote independent innovation by protecting small inventors from being scooped by large established corporations. Apple is hijacking the patent system to protect the interests of their large corporation against any competition at all. This is an incredibly dangerous move* that could stifle innovation for many years to come. The real problem is in the absurd use of the patent system by many companies today; imagine how different the world would be if Henry Ford were able to patent every trivial part of the car – there’d have been no competition and no continued development (thanks BOL for analogy). If someone was allowed to patent all the ideas relevant to traveling by air, we might still be stuck with hot-air balloons instead of airplanes. While I could happily ignore complaints 1-3, since nobody is forcing me to use Apple’s restrictive products, this latest patent attack has really put Apple back right into my face. It’s apparently not enough for Apple to control exactly how everyone is allowed to use Apple products, they now want to tell you exactly which other products you are allowed to use as well.
In the important realm of science, technology and ideas, I believe that the continual conversion of ideas and development effort into the private property of companies like Apple is a great threat to continued free innovation if such a patent attack is allowed to stand.
Thanks to comments below (even those calling me a troll) for some corrections. I would like to point out these are my personal reasons for not using Apple products. I trust that everyone can come to their own decision about whether these points matter to them or not. As I said above, if it wasn’t for “the final straw”, I would happily go about my days ignoring Apple’s existence. It is only when they try to control the choices I have in using other products that they warrant my bemoaning. And, no, I don’t think Apple (or its employees) are evil. I am friends with some of them. I think their general philosophy is nearly opposite that of open-source, and their patent attack dangerous and self-serving. But, “evil”, nah…
precedent -> move (thanks Carl)
worse -> “worse fit” (for me that is, best not to use general statements)
Thanks to Phillip (misc BSD software), Jeff (opencl) and myself (grand-central) for pointing out open-source projects Apple has contributed to.