The Macalope: High-hanging fruit

The Macalope sometimes excuses himself for picking the low-hanging fruit when it is particularly lush. But it’s not always the lowest fruit that’s the fruitiest.

Writing for the New Yorker, Tim Wu asks “Does a Company Like Apple Need a Genius Like Steve Jobs?” (tip o’ the antlers to Nick Heer).

Yep. Heeeeere we go again.

The old tech adage is that “open beats closed.” In other words, open technological systems, or those that allow interoperability, always beat their closed competitors. This is an article of faith for certain engineers. It’s also the lesson from Windows’ defeat of the Apple Macintosh in the nineteen-nineties, Google’s triumph in the early aughts, and, more broadly, the success of the Internet over its closed rivals (remember AOL?). But is it still true?

No.

Well, glad we could resolve that so easily. Guess this is …

But now …

Uhnnnn …

… over the last six months, in ways little and large, Apple has begun to stumble. Accuse me of overreading …

You’re overreading.

… but I propose a revision of the old adage: closed can beat open, but you have to be genius.

Only Steve Jobs could innovate. Some truths are undeniable. Also unverifiable.

The point is, Apple used to churn out a groundbreaking product every 15 minutes under Steve Jobs and now it doesn’t. QED.

NO ON CAN DENY THIS LA-LA-LA-LA NOT LIS-TEN-ING.

Under normal conditions, in an unpredictable industry, and given regular levels of human error, open still beats closed.

Conducted on open road conditions by a professional driver. DO NOT ATTEMPT.

To explain, I need to first be careful about what I mean by “open” and “closed,” …

And sloppy about what I mean by “beating.” Wu, of course, never defines what he means by that. Android is simply “winning,” despite the fact that only Samsung seems to be making any money off of it.

Microsoft Windows defeated its rivals by being more open: unlike Apple’s operating system, which was technically superior …

Except that Windows didn’t really start to run away from the Mac until Microsoft’s OS had features that were technically superior, like protected and dynamic memory. It also didn’t help that, during the same period, Apple was run by a collection of chowderheads, nitwits, and doofuses.

Most of the winner firms in the eighties to the aughts, like Microsoft, Dell, Palm, Google, and Netscape, were open.

What about Nintendo? And the Xbox? Is that open? Or run by geniuses? Why isn’t Linux, the most open of all opens, king of the hill?

Items that do not fall into the predefined results set must be discarded.

Which brings us to the aughts, and Apple’s great run. For about twelve years, Apple successfully beat the rule. But that’s because it had the best of all possible systems; namely, a dictator with absolute control who was also a genius.

Wait, how are Apple’s “open” rivals like Dell, Palm, and Netscape doing these days? Why is Apple’s story considered the aberration? Microsoft and Google both do fine business, but not anywhere near what Apple does. Why isn’t the story about how open systems lead to commoditization that reduces markets to the least common denominator and dries up these companies profits?

The truth is that the situation is more complex than Wu paints it. But this “open always wins” canard sure is an easy story to tell, isn’t it?

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