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Apple more closed than Microsoft

Choice cut from Reg Barometer Survey

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Reg Tech Panel Bashing Microsoft for being closed and proprietary has been a popular pastime in the media and the IT industry for many years, and there is no doubt that much of this has been well deserved.

After having its wings clipped on several occasions by regulators, however, the Microsoft of today, while not totally reformed, is a lot more open and well behaved than it was, say, 10 years ago.

Nevertheless, many are still wary of Microsoft for its past transgressions, as well as more recent ‘crimes’ such as inflicting Vista on the world before it was ready, and allegedly using undue influence to secure endorsement of its OOXML file format as an ISO standard.

With the rebirth of Apple and the rise of both the Mac and iPhone, it is therefore not surprising that lots of people have latched onto the ‘Church of Jobs’ as an alternative that will ultimately save us from the evil ‘M$’ empire. Indeed in some segments of the press and IT professional community, there is a prevailing view that anything Apple does has to be good, and anyone who doesn’t ‘get’ how great Apple is must be either stupid or brainwashed by those from the ‘dark side’.

Meanwhile, those of us making a more objective assessment of what’s going on look at how Apple’s business is evolving and see a lot of similar traits to those that were apparent as Microsoft was gaining power. While ‘A$’ doesn’t work quite as well as ‘M$’ as a shorthand for depicting hard-nosed commercial behaviour with the profit motive at its core, anyone who thinks Apple is not trying to exploit its brand strength and the dependencies between its offerings as much as it can to extract money from us is probably being a tad naive.

So how comfortable are we that Apple is really the warm, cuddly and open company many would have us believe? Well as it turns out, a lot of Reg Readers are not that comfortable. When we gave respondents in our recent annual barometer survey the opportunity to comment on some deliberately controversial issues, 549 of them provided an opinion on the question of whether Apple or Microsoft could be considered more closed. OK, we admit this was a bit leading as survey questions go, but the responses were nevertheless very interesting, not least because most of the criticism was levelled at Apple. When we analysed the feedback, while 21% said Microsoft was more closed, and 24% said there wasn’t anything to choose between the two, the majority, 55%, gave the prize for lack of openness to Apple.

The most frequently cited reason for regarding Apple as closed was the end-to-end proprietary nature of its offerings, which tie hardware to software to services and in a way that is thought to restrict choice and interoperability. Whether it’s OS X being wedded to the Mac, the iPod being dependent on the iTunes service, or iPhone software distribution being controlled via the Apple Store, there is a strong perception that openness is not always the biggest priority for Apple.

For developers in particular, this end-to-end proprietary approach appears to be a big turn-off, which is interesting given that one of the most frequently cited strengths of the Mac, for example, is the Unix foundation that underpins OS X, which is generally considered to be an indicator of openness and compliance with standards. One developer explained this paradox by describing Apple as “closing open software”. In terms of specifics, references were made to lack of transparency with regard to proprietary API specifications, and being secretive about known faults, vulnerabilities, and so on – behaviour that Microsoft simply could not get away with nowadays without drawing fire from its customers or the regulator.

Here are some quotes from readers to illustrate the kind of feedback we received in this area:

“Poor tech docs."

"Ever tried getting an API definition out of them?"

“MS appears more willing to provide good documentation for APIs, SDKs, etc.”

"Lack of transparency and constant denial of obvious problems."

"Apple never admits to mistakes/vulnerabilities (even MS does that)."

"At least MS admits security flaws in the software instead of brushing it under the carpet!"

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