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

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.