What being open means to Apple & Microsoft


Former Apple engineer Jens Alfke believes Apple’s external image has been polished until featureless. The restrictive staff blogging policies, the veil of secrecy around future plans and a carefully orchestrated three-person spokes-team of Jobs, Schiller and Ive lead to a very impersonal closed business.

It certainly wasn’t always this way. The original Mac team appeared in Rolling Stone magazine with credit in about boxes, a practice that was continued at NeXT but abolished by Mac OS X Beta. Jobs makes regular comparisons between engineers and artists and touted individual thinking in the Think Different campaign and artists like recognition with signatures on art and credits on film.

Conversely Apple’s Mac OS X operating system is built on open software and standards. The kernel is derived from open elements bundled up as Darwin which Apple provides back along with compilers, debug tools, programming language, command line tools, Bonjour, device driver kit and a bunch of drivers. All are open.

The web rendering technology in Safari (WebKit based on KHTML) is also open and changes rolled back to the communities often reveal unannounced insights into Apple’s plans (e.g. Safari for Windows).

And yet how many engineers write or talk about Apple? Do you know the names of any product managers? Could you find any out with Google? (LinkedIn doesn’t count ;-)

These aren’t academic questions, what if you have a great idea for a feature you’d like to see added? How can you discuss how a product could evolve to fit your needs? What about a simple bug report or advanced access to technology? (The answers are “send it to [email protected] and don’t hold your breath”, “you can’t” and “join the developer program”)

Heaven forbid you do actually find out what their plans might be – you could find yourself talking to their lawyers like the ill-fated ThinkSecret site that featured rumors, speculation and the occasional insider info.


Jens makes a passing mention to Microsoft’s relaxed blogging policies.

Microsoft is a company that rarely provides the source, never ships or builds upon existing free software and yet not only discusses plans and road-maps but actively solicits feedback in the design process through conferences, user groups, forums, mailing lists and even on-site review teams. Employees such as Scott Guthrie and Brad Abrams have become quite well known within .NET communities often being the first to break announcements and provide quick feedback through their blogs.

The center of this effort is engineering thanks to sites like Channel 9 providing regular interviews, Microsoft Research providing experiments to play with and CodePlex hosting open projects.

But they aren’t the only ones reaching out.

Microsoft’s HR & recruiting team and individuals are also putting up interesting insights and thoughts on how the company operates and head of the Xbox Live! is so active in this area that the name Major Nelson is known to any serious 360 owner.

Being open

How strange that Apple embraces open technologies yet keeps communication closed and Microsoft’s technologies are still quite closed yet communication is very much open.

What does it mean to be open and where will each company’s approach lead them?


2 responses

  1. Avatar for steve

    Yeah, it's interesting, but totally natural I think. Apple's main competitive advantage is innovation, they only make waves by dropping something cool that other people haven't done. Using open technology is just an enabler to let them get to the innovative bits faster, by leveraging commodity technology at the bottom end (a technique I strongly agree with - why reinvent the boring bits of the wheel?).

    Microsoft's approach is more about hitting huge numbers of people with software that while not very innovative most of the time (putting it mildly), pushes the right buttons in terms of making it easy to adopt and leveraging satisfy their massive existing user base. Individual things that come out of MS are basically rebranded versions of ideas that have been around for ages, but they utilise the integration they can offer because they control so much of the desktop space to give them an advantage. Thus, sharing ideas isn't such a big deal for them, in my view - in fact they need to absorb ideas from others since they seem to have few of their own ;) But when they get their ideas, they tend to come up with a solution that's easy to adopt, which pleases a lot of people who don't want to have assemble their own solutions to things.

    'Open' is too vague a word I think, there's so many different aspects of it. I'd say Apple is a mostly a consumer of open source, Microsoft is an open exchanger of ideas. Neither of them contribute a lot back into the 'open' space - Microsoft probably does a bit more, but with a few exceptions the strings that are attached tend to be a bit onerous. You have to look to companies like IBM, Sun and RedHat if you want to see companies that actually put out a lot of genuinely open content into the 'wild', but that's because their business models are very different - both Apple and Microsoft are heavily product-based companies, for whom it's not in their interests to be big publishers of open content, except as loss-leaders.

    steve January 26, 2008
  2. Avatar for Kezzer

    It's what makes developers feel uneasy and it's also what makes consumers feel content. Microsoft serve their purpose in terms of their primary agenda, serving home users, but they also seem to reach heavily to developers in terms of .NET. Personally I never know what to make of any of it, I'm not even sure if I should have an opinion most of the time.

    Kezzer January 26, 2008