Fact Checking Steve Jobs: Apple’s Not Entirely Behind a Free, Open Net

Steve Jobs has pronounced his definitive views on why Adobe’s closed, proprietary Flash software is such bad news. But does his claim that Apple promotes open standards ring true? In the absence of a riposte by Adobe, we’ve had a look for you.

apple open standards


Steve Jobs has pronounced his definitive views on why Adobe’s closed, proprietary Flash software is such bad news. But does his claim that Apple promotes open standards ring true? In the absence of a riposte by Adobe, we’ve had a look for you.

Apple lies, Adobe’s a-okay: The iPhone is as closed as a closed thing can be

Many a Flash supporter and Apple hater will be trotting out arguments like this in the coming days, aggressively geeking-out over the rigid locked-down control Apple exercises over the iPhone and iPad development platforms. And, to a certain extent, they’re right. The iPhone OS is a closed, proprietary system, with some precedents stretching back into Apple’s past.

  • The iPhone OS is rigid, with strictly defined controls over the API hooks that app writers can access.
  • Apple reserves some (sometimes very powerful) APIs for its own controlled use–any app writer toying with them in an app will find his software refused entry to the App Store.
  • Apple’s reviewers maintain an iron-hard grip on the App Store, occasionally rejecting apps on what seem to be the flimsiest of grounds.
  • Apple’s promoting H.264 as the de facto standard for Web video, despite the fact this video system has a potentially complex licensing problem in its near future
  • Proprietary standards are nothing new to Apple, as Jobs casually admitted, and they even tinkered with charging a license fee for the FireWire standard.
  • Apple’s support for DRM in iTunes, and now the new mobile iDevices, hampers innovation in the entertainment industry (instead supporting the status quo) and is a blow to free, open, Net use. Some say this, combined with the closed iPhone OS represents a serious hindrance to innovation in the whole new Tablet PC paradigm.

Adobe lies, Apple’s sweet: Cupertino’s coders have long supported open standards


Anyone daring to defend Job’s statements will be branded a fanboi, and openly vilified in the online press. But if you look at Apple’s history, and the trajectory of the many open standards its closed iPhone OS supports, nay, actively promotes (thanks to the iDevice’s runaway successes) then he’s right.

  • Apple’s part development and active promotion of the open WebKit standard has resulted in some cutting-edge browser developments, and Safari was, in fact, the co-placed first to pass the stringent Acid3 compliance test (alongside Opera’s Presto).
  • By restricting the standards that iPhone OS supports to strictly open, patent-free ones, Apple has actually created a big promotional vehicle for next-gen HTML5 Web standards, and permitted the creation of some very powerful HTML5-based Web apps.
  • By strictly patrolling the apps that get into the App Store, Apple’s maintained the iPhone’s position as a highly usable, reliable, and safe (in a malware sense) gizmo.
  • On its Mac platform, Apple’s proposed and promoted Open Computing Language (OpenCL), most obviously in its new Snow Leopard OS. It’s patent and royalty free, and has such potential for enabling multi-core CPU use and GPU-optimized processing that names like Intel, ATI, ARM and IBM are supporting it already.

So let’s sum up: Apple’s iPhone system is very locked down, and Apple’s historical promotion of tech standards isn’t as blemish-free as purists would prefer to think. But it’s a strategy that’s incredibly, mind-bejiggingly successful, and has shattered the old, broken smartphone paradigm. In fact, without the closed proprietary nature of the iPhone platform, its unique, user-pleasing “just works” qualities probably wouldn’t have been possible. But we’re talking about the platform here, folks. The Web and media standards supported by the iPhone platform are open, and as a result of having over 80 million iPhones, iPod Touches and iPads in people’s hands around the world, Apple’s actively promoting a very open-standards Web future. It’s like this: Household door sizes are standardized and regulated for a number of very good reasons…but the upshot is that they work reliably, and you can easily replace a door with a new one, of a different design, at any time you wish. And then you can open the door, and step into a free-form, standards-free world of adventure.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)