Does Apple Bite?

Last week I wrote a piece dissecting some of the misconceptions about the “open platform” world. This week, I’m going to take a brief dive into the epitome of the “closed platform” world: Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) and the iPhone. (See Open=Beta?)

In the past year I’ve had a uniquely bizarre experience: At tech conferences, whenever there is a break, it’s time to network and schmooze. This is always a good time, as it’s always interesting to get folk's perspectives on a broad array of topics. Often, especially when there are investors about, the topic will move to “open” and how “open” will ultimately crack open the carriers' data services.

Whether it be pundits, or certain venture capital and financial types, invariably there will be vocal railing against the operator community globally, as if there is a vast conspiracy by the operators to stagnate the applications and device biz. (See The Future of Mobile Open Access.) I always think that is a bit wacky, as operators are like any other business and they clearly want new customers and profitable applications on their networks, albeit with their own set of criteria.

The diatribe can sometimes go for several minutes. Then, the bizarre thing happens: Either the person giving the diatribe, or someone else in the circle would pull out their iPhone... And the circle will sing its praises, all with a straight face and without realizing the contrarian right turn the conversation just took.

Now, I love Apple. I love Apple products. I bought my first Mac, a monochrome Mac 512K, back in early 1985. We have three Macs in my house and too many various iPods to count. I own Apple stock and, like everyone else, eagerly look to the blogosphere for rumors of Apple's latest toy introductions. But the iPhone is just about as far from the open model as you can get, and I find it surreal when Apple is mentioned in an open discussion. As I’ve personally witnessed numerous times with some very sophisticated folks.

The iPhone -- and the ecosystem it is generating -- set a benchmark for accelerating mobile innovation. Apple rewrote the book on mobile phone user interfaces, simplification of browsing, and how to make a great phone. Which is staggering, considering the numbers of companies and people who have tried to address the "UI problem" in the first 20 years of mobile devices. The first year of new iPhone users were justifiably wowed by their experiences with the iPhone.

The iPhone, however, is about as “closed” as a system as can be. The hardware is proprietary and available from one company, Apple. The OS is proprietary and available from one company, Apple. The data services on the 2G iPhone were available only from limited operators, and Apple did a bunch of stuff to make sure those services were associated, not with the operator, but with... Apple. Once again, refer to "Open=Beta?" for a refresher on this.

Apple has always been an innovation engine and platform, not an open model. This is not a bad thing at all, in fact it's staggering what Apple has done for generating innovation in the mobile industry in such a short period of time. As I’ve stated in previous posts, driving innovation is a good thing, and Apple has lit a global fire under the mobile industry. But it ain’t open!

Page 2: Apple makes a case for being closed

Page 3: The story of Handset X

Page 4: Coming soon: Apple WWAN laptops?

— Jeff Belk is a principal at ICT168 Capital LLC, focused on developing and guiding global growth opportunities in the Information and Communication Technology space. He can be reached at [email protected]. Special to Unstrung

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miar70 12/5/2012 | 3:33:48 PM
re: Does Apple Bite? As an Apple shareholder (full disclosure). I have been very happy with AAPL's ability to perform the illusion of being open yet maintaining one of the most closed and tightly controlled platforms ever. The marketing is a work of art :)

I have worked for a well known infrastructure and handset vendor for more than 15 years an you're absolutely right about developing 3G devices. I suspect that the carriers have taken a back seat when it comes to testing as AAPL has chosen to put it's brand in control and as a result it is the AAPL brand that is taking the hit on the device shortcomings, rather than the carriers. There are probably some very smug operators out there now saying quietly under their breath 'told you so', but no matter what, AAPL has changed the landscape of what a mobile device should be capable of and raised the bar in terms of style and usability.
Absolutely agree that an HSDPA enabled iTouch would be a huge seller, now if only they would make it possible via a plug-in or card slot of some description... oh right not likely, new iTouch for everyone please :)