The Apple Ecosystem: So How Much Control Do You Need?

May 20th, 2010

So here’s the eternal argument. Apple’s critics complain that the Mac and mobile platforms are clamped down tight, giving customers restricted freedom to do what they want. They want us to either convince Apple to change their ways, or make you switch to a more “open” platform, such as Windows, or perhaps Linux and the Google Android OS.

Of course “clamped down” can have a variety of meanings and impact different people in various ways. If you want a personal computer with a reasonably safe, stable and predictable OS, the Mac has almost always been ahead of the pack. Sure there were times when things got pretty dicey, as the original Mac OS got real old and failed to keep up with the latest and greatest features that you were told were required.

In those days, a key shortcoming was, strangely enough, multitasking. Apple’s system, cooperative, meant that your apps had to play nice with each other. If they didn’t, the system could come crashing down and even a simple application quit would be sufficient to force you to restart. Compare that to preemptive multitasking and protected memory, where the OS played the role of the traffic cop. That’s what Windows had begun to offer, although it took some years for Microsoft to get it to work reasonably well.

Now those of you who used Macs in those days might have felt, as I did, that they crashed too much, but the vast majority of you probably didn’t care what sort of multitasking scheme was used, so long as you could conveniently ran lots of apps with decent performance.

Of course, Mac OS X is far better at handling such things, but the difference probably isn’t near as drastic as you might have expected given all the hype.

It’s worse — or at least more stringent –with Apple’s mobile platform, because they decided early on that they were selling appliances, not personal computers. This meant a simplified, intuitive operating system that didn’t offer a whole lot of meat and potatoes for the power user. Sure, the interface was certainly snappy, and with the iPad it feels like an iPhone on steroids, but what about the things you gave up?

Multitasking was limited to Apple’s own apps, so you couldn’t run Pandora, an online music streaming app, in the background while doing anything else. A recent survey, however, indicated that only a small number of customers, in the single digits, actually felt they had been deprived because of the lack of across-the-board multitasking.

Rather than just let it happen, as developers of other smartphone platforms have done, Apple decided to actually make multitasking work with minimal impact on system performance and battery life. They came up with seven multitasking APIs that are intended to solve the key multitasking concerns. Of course, we’ll have to wait for the release of iPhone 4.0 to see how well it works in the real world, but since so few of you felt deprived anyway, other than some media pundits, it’s a win-win situation.

Another supposed symptom of Apple’s closed ecosystem is the lack of Flash. Steve Jobs has grown more and more disdainful of Flash over the past three years, finally concluding that Adobe is unable to make it work right and deliver smooth performance, decent stability and security and not seriously impair battery life.

Now it’s true that version 2.2 of Google’s Android OS is supposed to include Adobe Flash 10.1, allegedly optimized for mobile platforms. All well and good, but the reports that have emerged from Google’s demonstrations so far don’t reveal a stable, mature product. It seems to be nothing more than a beta version at this point, one still prone to crashes, but if that’s what Google wants to provide their cell phone partners — they don’t have direct customers except for that failed Nexus One smartphone — that’s their right.

I’m just waiting to see if Adobe can prove that Jobs is wrong in keeping Flash off Apple’s mobile platform. As of today, Adobe has failed to demonstrate a working Flash prototype on an iPhone or iPad. Let them show that Flash works properly, and they win the argument. But I’m not expecting that to happen anytime soon.

Now with an Internet appliance, such as the iPhone and iPad, it’s also pretty clear that most people don’t want to miss with complicated settings and power user features. They just want the things to work from the time the unit is turned on until it’s turned off, or the battery dies. This shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp, but it appears that Apple’s worst critics believe the company is taking the wrong approach.

But even Steve Jobs has said, in one of his famous email exchanges with some bloggers, that if you don’t like Apple’s way of doing things, the answer is simple. Buy something else. Apple doesn’t own the smartphone market, and, despite the initial success of the iPad, probably doesn’t own the tablet market either. At least not yet.

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8 Responses to “The Apple Ecosystem: So How Much Control Do You Need?”

  1. DaveD says:

    I’m at that stage where I just want my Mac to work. I don’t want to waste time troubleshooting software issues.

    It was wild back in the classic Mac OS era. One could add a number of extensions to add functions to Mac OS and hope that no conflict arises. It was fun tweaking the OS and made my Mac to become easier to use. It was no fun when one application crashed taking the system down.

    A lot of third-party applications were installed in Classic and Mac OS X through Tiger. Under Leopard, I took a step back. This time I would carefully examine the third-party app to determine if I should really have it. Of all the Mac OS X installs, Leopard is the most stable. Stability is a nice feature to have in an OS.

  2. I remember when I installed something called ClickChange on my office Mac around 1990. That indulgence lasted about a week before I got sick of the hourly crashes.

    Today I keep the add-ons extremely limited. I just want to get things done without the nonsense.


  3. Steve W says:

    “I’m just waiting to see if Adobe can prove that Jobs is wrong in keeping Flash off Apple’s mobile platform. As of today, Adobe has failed to demonstrate a working Flash prototype on an iPhone or iPad. Let them show that Flash works properly, and they win the argument. But I’m not expecting that to happen anytime soon.”

    Adobe is in a lose-lose situation. If they CAN’T show that Flash works properly now, then they lose. If they CAN show that Flash works properly NOW, then they just prove that they were lazy BEFORE! The iPhone is three years old, why is it taking them so long?

    • @Steve W, Well, I suppose they could demonstrate a version of Flash, apologize for taking so long, but insist they wanted to make sure it was absolutely perfect and that they were using new technologies and all that balderdash. But since it won’t happen, we don’t have to worry about the excuses.


  4. Constable Odo says:

    Jeez, when I was running OS9 on my Mac many, many years ago, I had so many extensions loaded I could hardly count them. It was Crash City at least a couple of times a day. Now I’ve got a 24″ iMac 3.06 running Snow Leopard and it’s been running 24/7 for nearly a year now doing my normal duties with Transmission always running in the background. I have never seen Snow Leopard crash as long as I’ve been using it. This setup is the most stable platform I’ve ever used. It just works, perfectly for me. I’d have to recommend using a Mac to any of my friends. I’m not saying Windows 7 sucks or anything but this iMac and Snow Leopard is about as good as it’s going to get. It runs cool and quiet and no sign of flakiness.

    The only time I ever reboot it is when I need to install a system software update. That’s it. And even if the browser occasionally crashes under Flash (I do use ClickToFlash) it’s just a localized browser crash. Relaunch Safari and it’s like nothing happened.

    I think that Apple should take as tight a control on its mobile platform as it can. I just happen to like the “walled garden” approach. If I didn’t, I’d just quietly look elsewhere. I believe Apple has the platform’s user’s best interest’s at heart even if some of the decisions seem somewhat irrational to other companies.

    • @Constable Odo, Steve Jobs has given the “family friendly” response to the tightly-controlled mobile platform scheme. He wants to protect kids from unfettered access to Internet porn. And don’t forget that Jobs has a wife and kids, not to mention his position on the board of Disney. He has a vested interest in family safe.


  5. dfs says:

    The trouble with this conversation is that people are talking about “control” on a whole bunch of different levels at once. On one level, you can build an argument that Apple is exerting too much control by keeping Flash off the iPhone and iPad. Or not. On another, one could argue that Apple gives the user way too much control, in that it’s way too easy for some idiot to get on Terminal and use SUDO-level commands to wreak utter havoc. Then a couple of people in this thread are mentioning the kind of user control that comes from behavior- and interface-modifying utilities, which I personally find empowering because they allow me to modify my Mac to improve my work-flow and personalize it to fit my needs and tastes. In my personal experience, even Haxies have been totally harmless, so the freedom to customize my Mac strikes me as entirely beneficial. I only wish Apple would carry it further (for instance by giving us back the ability to custom-assign f-keys, record macros, and customize the stuff we keep in the Apple menu, as we used to be able to do on various versions of Classic). Then Gene raises the issue of keeping porn off the Apple Store, which is yet another kind of control. I’m all for that, folks who want porn know where they can get it. So what if anything at all does this rather fractured conversation add up to? Is Apple too controlling or not? My own take is that this idea of Apple being too rigidly controlling is largely a matter of anti-Apple propaganda, over the years Apple has done a whale of a lot more to empower me than to restrict my freedom. Flash? Well, the single largest use of Flash seems to be for advertising, and for that reason I use a Flash-suppressing utility with Safari. Occasionally I do override this, either to view some Flash-based website or to watch video, and on the whole I’m happy with this arrangement, even at the expense of the occasional browser crash, because if we do go to HTML-5 instead I’m afraid one of the principal beneficiaries will be advertisers, since it will be harder or maybe impossible to filter out their unwelcome content.

  6. Richard says:

    The question is whether people want an occasionally benevolant tyrant controlling their use of products for which they have paid.

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