Apple vs. Open Innovation


By John Parkinson

It's become almost a religious belief that to get 'real" innovation you need a broad community of people sharing ideas and helping to improve whatever is being dreamt up. Free from stifling corporate constraints and management process overheads, "open innovation" can go fast and take unexpected directions.

That's what entrepreneurs do, isn't it? Many eyes help keep you from blind alleys. Peer review keeps you honest. Buzz gets you market, or at least mind, share.

And then there's Apple.

Back in the mid-90s I had to decide between Apple (the original Mac) and Microsoft (pre-Windows 95) for 90,000 people, half of whom used one or the other. I still get hate mail for dropping Apple.

It wasn't that I thought Microsoft was more innovative. It wasn't just price (although that was a factor). It was the "lock in" of a closed hardware architecture balanced against the ecosystem strategy of an open one. Even if only the hardware platform was truly open (which Windows was certainly not), we would have many more options than if we stuck with the Macintosh architecture. Not an easy choice because of the politics and sociology involved--we lost Apple as a client over the decision--but technically straightforward.

Back then Apple wasn't being run by Steve Jobs and was clearly floundering. That helped the decision. Jobs was off running Next back then--and going close to nowhere with some great ideas about how to combine hardware, software and user interfaces.

Now, however, Jobs is back, and so is Apple: iMac, the MacBook line, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, (maybe) iPad. Nearly a decade of iconic devices and hardware/software combinations that redefined both major categories of consumer electronics and what it is to be "cool."

And not an ounce of open innovation in sight.

Most of these devices and platforms aren't really all that great. But their designs are. They are highly "usable." Their aesthetics (and hence their desirability, to some degree) are outstanding. And their functionality is generally good enough. (OK, no hate mail, please. I own and like a lot of Apple products. A few really are great--but most are just good enough to get by). They are also part of a consistent brand system, cleverly tagged as "innovative," that sets and pretty much meets customers' expectations. That there is a sufficiently large market for this system might be a surprise, but it's clearly there, clearly loyal, and clearly willing to pay a premium to belong.

And the Apple crowd doesn't care that the system is run by a brilliant, moderately beneficent, maniacally focused dictator and isn't in the least bit "open" or interested in becoming so.

So you can "innovate" and win without an open ecosystem--if you are good enough. If you are really good, you can beat the "open" crowd most of the time.

It's just that most of us aren't that good.

John Parkinson, the former CTO of TransUnion LLC, has been a technology executive and consultant for over 30 years, advising many of the world's leading companies on the issues associated with the effective use of IT. Click here to read his columns in CIO Insight's print edition.


9 Comments for "Apple vs. Open Innovation"

  • Benjamin Rau February 22, 2010 10:58 pm

    The bottom line is, no, many of us will not pay extra for a white plastic case over a gray case. Spray paint is cheap - Apple is not. I wonder if Apple has begun to show the hubris that took down all those ancient gods. The typical consumer does not expect to do many things with a toaster - it turns bread-type things brown. We expect more functionality out of our computers. Not everyone is happy to pay two or three times the value of something just to have the "name brand."

  • Vincent Marchionni, MBA, MS February 22, 2010 2:27 pm

    What Mr. Parkinson and the other DP managers got for their money was expensive hardware. IBM, HP, Sony, NEC, Compaq et. al. were not THAT inexpensive. And they were bound to a monopoly operating system that was always a challenge to get running on the particular boxes that they just over spent for. Once IBM approved the Wintel platform the managers rushed to buy inferior hardware and software which was barely good enough claiming that it was "the standard." It continues to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Wintel has caught up but it took decades. I expect too much from Apple and was concerned that Apple's real competitor, Sony, would finally overtake it as the industry innovator. Fortunately Jobs came though with the iPad. The iPad design is the next portable computer paradigm. Later versions will be more powerful and have more features. By the way, if the iPad versions of iWork are as useful and powerful as they appear, you could do all the class work and research work for an MBA.

  • Jorge Olenewa February 22, 2010 10:36 am

    Being a person who has spent the last 39 years in the computer business, I can understand why the average computer user does not "get" Windows but can far more easily handle an Apple. I use both and while Apple can be frustrating for someone who is as technical as I am; there are many more situations in which the architecture of the Windows operating system just drives me up the proverbial wall. For ease of use and stability, I will take Apple any time over Windows.

  • hiscross February 19, 2010 10:15 am

    Collectivism has created any new or innovative ever. No two or more minds can think together. It takes an individual with his/her own mind and individual thinking that creates new and fresh ideas. I support open source as long as it's functional and useful. The open-source products I use (on a Mac) are mostly built by one developer and they are very good. Apple may make what some will call a closed system, but so what if it works? I can't change much in my MacBook Air, but I have changed processors in Intel iMacs and Minis. That said, people who make collective decisions for people who can think normally have made bad decisions.

  • Andy RZ February 19, 2010 9:58 am

    Just a few thoughts to ponder: Apple and Microsoft were begun on different premises for a reason. Apple came about as always wanting to be client-focused and state of the art. Steve Jobs and Apple not only wanted to own their destiny, but being client-centric, they addressed an audience with innovation that the client could use in very targeted markets. The packaging might have attracted users, but the tools worked and kept users loyal. Apple found niches such as graphic design, which had always been proprietary, and opened that market to the user. If anything, this target marketing is the hallmark of Apple innovation at its best. Microsoft was an innovator as well. The audience was different, the needs were actually more traditional and applied to a wider market. Whether it be scientists, architects or gamers, the core platform was basically the same. As time went on Microsoft, the larger of the two, with its eye on the target actually being the developer, showed them how well-designed applications tested in Apple environments such as QuickBooks and Adobe products that were conducive to its target market could grow exponentially by including the PC world. And they did. NEXT - Steve Jobs in exile - was about finding a common platform using the niche marketing concept as its driving force. It was a learning experience that redefined Jobs approach to the market. When he returned ti Apple, he returned to bring Apple to the mass market - hence iPod, i-Phone and so forth. In many ways, Microsoft has grayed and the innovations have slowed as Linux and Google and new brands of mass marketers have come to the stage. Microsoft will not go away as IBM did not go away. It will transform itself. Apple will always be perceived as an innovator, because it built its brand on that image and has succeeded. Microsoft has builts its brand on being "everypersons" PC. It could be the GM of the computer industry. So from my perspective there is room for each of these companies and more in the market because in reality they try to differentiate their products and their competition is healthy and drives technology forward.

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