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Post of a Death Foretold (perdon GGM!) - Apple and the doomed walled garden - brnd.ws

Post of a Death Foretold (perdon GGM!) – Apple and the doomed walled garden
Another post, another prediction, another take on a tech giant. It’s possible that in a few years when I revisit this I’m going to think it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever said, like when in 2000 I predicted that Pocket PC was going to fail (which it did) and Palm would be the king of mobile platforms (wow!). I’m actually mildly proud of that one as iOS mimicked a bunch of good things Palm had – monotasking, fool-proof navigation, developer ecosystem. And it’s about Apple that I want to talk about, particularly about one key feature where 2000 Palm and current Apple are dramatically different – openness.

I was thinking about this when last week I was looking for a tasklist software for my Mac. Several months ago I decided I was giving up on Mac Mail. It happened that I also migrated all my domains to Google Apps so I could either use gmail or a better email client. I finally chose the latter and started using Sparrow (awesome email client in case you’re looking for one). But Sparrow was lucky that I had the chance to play with it on a friend’s laptop before actually buying it. Otherwise I would have picked Gmail web client, which is better than most email clients and it’s free. The thing is, there is no way I’m going to pay $10 for an email client before I try it out. It’s not about the money, it’s about the idea of paying without trying. The problem is that Sparrow bought into Apple’s policy and doesn’t allow a trial download.

So when last week I decided to pick a tasklist software that could integrate with my other productivity tools, I was faced with the same problem. After reading a bunch of reviews, I made a shortlist of applications to try. The problem? Some of them were exclusively sold through the Apple Store and I couldn’t give it a try before buying. As a user I still had a lot of options as fortunately not every developer has yet stuck to Apple’s exclusivity. But it worries me that Apple is trying to build the same ecosystem for OS X as it did for the iOS – if you want to build an app, you have to comply with Apple’s rules and sell exclusively through the App Store. It’s going to be a lot harder to build that ecosystem for OS X as there’s a stronger legacy and users won’t easily give up on their freedom to download software from wherever they want, but Apple’s intentions seem very clear.

The problem with the walled garden that Apple is building is that is doomed to fail. I know it sounds like heresy but no walled garden has ever survived to openness and freedom. This is not a tech issue; it’s a social one. We (humans) don’t like walled gardens. Between perfection and freedom, we will always choose the latter. I don’t know if Apple thinks it’s better than any previous giant but no giant is big enough or good enough to fail. Everyone thought that AOL’s walled garden was rock solid. If in 1994 of 1995 you criticized AOL you’d be called insane. Is AOL even relevant these days? In 1998 we were afraid we would have to live under Microsoft’s tech dictatorship. Today that sounds laughable.

It looks like Apple is trying to stretch the borders of its kingdom to unthinkable limits and that is bad for innovation, and therefore for the end user. The limitations of Apple’s policy are already visible. If you’re a developer, don’t you want your users to download a free trial before buying your product? I do. Don’t you want to invite a select group of users to your beta? I do and 100 is not enough. Don’t you want to have the freedom to choose different price strategies? I do but it took Apple years and plenty of complaints until they allowed any sort of subscription models.

History shows that walled gardens don’t work and that’s why I say Apple’s walled garden is doomed. I don’t know how it’s going to happen (competitor? Apple changing its rules?) or when it’s going to happen but I’m positive it’s going to happen. So if I were you, I’d keep an eye on open platforms (HTML5?) and be ready to change rapidly. Just in case.

Image: Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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