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The Open Versus Closed Story of Microsoft and Apple June 6, 2011

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Strategy.

It was circa 1990 when I tested video capture boards for PCs and the Mac.  I spent hours (no, days) installing and configuring a set of boards to work on a standard PC of the era.  This included determining interrupt use, setting jumper configurations, installing special-purpose software, setting software options, and doing it all over again when it didn’t work the first time.  Or second.

(The software used DOS extenders rather than Windows, which was still in version 2.X at the time and pretty useless for anything but show.  DOS extenders enabled applications to access memory over the DOS 640KB memory limit (yes, you read that right – 640KB; hard to believe today).)

Still, after a great deal of effort, I got the half dozen PC cards (using the ISA bus standard) working, and able to capture video from a VCR and manipulate it on the screen.

I then turned to the two Mac boards that I had.  I popped them into the expansion slots, turned on the computer, and was capturing video within a few minutes.  No tweaking of the hardware, and little effort in configuring the software.  I was done in an hour.

A part of my experience was the maturity of the platform and OS.  The Mac OS at the time was far more advanced and capable than DOS, and it was arguably easier for software developers to work with the flat memory model of the Motorola 680X0 processors than the segmented model used by Intel.

But a large part of my experience was driven by Apple’s rigorous definition of hardware and software interfaces, and its unyielding demand of compliance by all third-party vendors.  Henry Blodget (yes, the analyst dean of the tech bubble era) says that this may ultimately be Apple’s undoing.

From the standpoint of the end user, there is no question that the control Apple exerts over its platform pays significant dividends.  Today, this control means that users have an incredibly good experience in setting up and using third-party hardware and software for all Apple products.  The downside, of course, is that there is a much more limited number of products, and you won’t find many that are cutting edge, because developers need to be able to experiment in ways that Apple’s model tends to discourage.

This model only works if there is a fairly open sandbox that entrepreneurs can use to experiment and fail.  That remains the PC architecture, today using Windows (or Linux) rather than DOS.

There are other factors involved.  Today, a lot (perhaps the majority) of innovation occurs on the Web, so the client platform isn’t as important as it once was (although smartphones and tablets offer new form factors that spur innovation).  And Microsoft has acquired a reputation, at least partially true, of being a plodding and unimaginative giant of an earlier era.

Apple innovates with its own products, but in doing so limits the innovation of its ecosystem.  This approach enables it to deliver a great experience for its end users.  Microsoft standardizes, and in doing so unleashes its ecosystem, which enables it to deliver a great experience for that ecosystem.  Its end users?  Not so great, because they are the test bed.  I like that model, but I can certainly understand the appeal of Apple’s.



1. immolator - June 7, 2011

It’s a shame that Amiga didn’t survive (well… it’s alive, but in an underground). An Apple competitor could do so much good to us, end-users.

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