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And Echoes of Old Ones

Google: Open versus Closed

A few days after he unveiled the iPad in January 2010, Jobs held a “town hall” meeting with employees at Apple’s campus. Instead of exulting about their transformative new product, however, he went into a rant against Google for producing the rival Android operating system. Jobs was furious that Google had decided to compete with Apple in the phone business. “We did not enter the search business,” he said. “They entered the phone business. Make no mistake. They want to kill the iPhone. We won’t let them.” A few minutes later, after the meeting moved on to another topic, Jobs returned to his tirade to attack Google’s famous values slogan. “I want to go back to that other question first and say one more thing. This ‘Don’t be evil’ mantra, it’s bullshit.”

Jobs felt personally betrayed. Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt had been on the Apple board during the development of the iPhone and iPad, and Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, had treated him as a mentor. He felt ripped off. Android’s touchscreen interface was adopting more and more of the features—multi-touch, swiping, a grid of app icons—that Apple had created.

Jobs had tried to dissuade Google from developing Android. He had gone to Google’s headquarters near Palo Alto in 2008 and gotten into a shouting match with Page, Brin, and the head of the Android development team, Andy Rubin. (Because Schmidt was then on the Apple board, he recused himself from discussions involving the iPhone.) “I said we would, if we had good relations, guarantee Google access to the iPhone and guarantee it one or two icons on the home screen,” he recalled. But he also threatened that if Google continued to develop Android and used any iPhone features, such as multi-touch, he would sue. At first Google avoided copying certain features, but in January 2010 HTC introduced an Android phone that boasted multi-touch and many other aspects of the iPhone’s look and feel. That was the context for Jobs’s pronouncement that Google’s “Don’t be evil” slogan was “bullshit.”

So Apple filed suit against HTC (and, by extension, Android), alleging infringement of twenty of its patents. Among them were patents covering various multi-touch gestures, swipe to open, double-tap to zoom, pinch and expand, and the sensors that determined how a device was being held. As he sat in his house in Palo Alto the week the lawsuit was filed, he became angrier than I had ever seen him:

Our lawsuit is saying, “Google, you fucking ripped off the iPhone, wholesale ripped us off.” Grand theft. I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go to thermonuclear war on this. They are scared to death, because they know they are guilty. Outside of Search, Google’s products—Android, Google Docs—are shit.

A few days after this rant, Jobs got a call from Schmidt, who had resigned from the Apple board the previous summer. He suggested they get together for coffee, and they met at a café in a Palo Alto shopping center. “We spent half the time talking about personal matters, then half the time on his perception that Google had stolen Apple’s user interface designs,” recalled Schmidt. When it came to the latter subject, Jobs did most of the talking. Google had ripped him off, he said in colorful language. “We’ve got you red-handed,” he told Schmidt. “I’m not interested in settling. I don’t want your money. If you offer me $5 billion, I won’t want it. I’ve got plenty of money. I want you to stop using our ideas in Android, that’s all I want.” They resolved nothing.

Underlying the dispute was an even more fundamental issue, one that had unnerving historical resonance. Google presented Android as an “open” platform; its open-source code was freely available for multiple hardware makers to use on whatever phones or tablets they built. Jobs, of course, had a dogmatic belief that Apple should closely integrate its operating systems with its hardware. In the 1980s Apple had not licensed out its Macintosh operating system, and Microsoft eventually gained dominant market share by licensing its system to multiple hardware makers and, in Jobs’s mind, ripping off Apple’s interface.

The comparison between what Microsoft wrought in the 1980s and what Google was trying to do in 2010 was not exact, but it was close enough to be unsettling—and infuriating. It exemplified the great debate of the digital age: closed versus open, or as Jobs framed it, integrated versus fragmented. Was it better, as Apple believed and as Jobs’s own controlling perfectionism almost compelled, to tie the hardware and software and content handling into one tidy system that assured a simple user experience? Or was it better to give users and manufacturers more choice and free up avenues for more innovation, by creating software systems that could be modified and used on different devices? “Steve has a particular way that he wants to run Apple, and it’s the same as it was twenty years ago, which is that Apple is a brilliant innovator of closed systems,” Schmidt later told me. “They don’t want people to be on their platform without permission. The benefits of a closed platform is control. But Google has a specific belief that open is the better approach, because it leads to more options and competition and consumer choice.”

So what did Bill Gates think as he watched Jobs, with his closed strategy, go into battle against Google, as he had done against Microsoft twenty-five years earlier? “There are some benefits to being more closed, in terms of how much you control the experience, and certainly at times he’s had the benefit of that,” Gates told me. But refusing to license the Apple iOS, he added, gave competitors like Android the chance to gain greater volume. In addition, he argued, competition among a variety of devices and manufacturers leads to greater consumer choice and more innovation. “These companies are not all building pyramids next to Central Park,” he said, poking fun at Apple’s Fifth Avenue store, “but they are coming up with innovations based on competing for consumers.” Most of the improvements in PCs, Gates pointed out, came because consumers had a lot of choices, and that would someday be the case in the world of mobile devices. “Eventually, I think, open will succeed, but that’s where I come from. In the long run, the coherence thing, you can’t stay with that.”

Jobs believed in “the coherence thing.” His faith in a controlled and closed environment remained unwavering, even as Android gained market share. “Google says we exert more control than they do, that we are closed and they are open,” he railed when I told him what Schmidt had said. “Well, look at the results—Android’s a mess. It has different screen sizes and versions, over a hundred permutations.” Even if Google’s approach might eventually win in the marketplace, Jobs found it repellent. “I like being responsible for the whole user experience. We do it not to make money. We do it because we want to make great products, not crap like Android.”

Flash, the App Store, and Control

Jobs’s insistence on end-to-end control was manifested in other battles as well. At the town hall meeting where he attacked Google, he also assailed Adobe’s multimedia platform for websites, Flash, as a “buggy” battery hog made by “lazy” people. The iPod and iPhone, he said, would never run Flash. “Flash is a spaghetti-ball piece of technology that has lousy performance and really bad security problems,” he said to me later that week.

He even banned apps that made use of a compiler created by Adobe that translated Flash code so that it would be compatible with Apple’s iOS. Jobs disdained the use of compilers that allowed developers to write their products once and have them ported to multiple operating systems. “Allowing Flash to be ported across platforms means things get dumbed down to the lowest common denominator,” he said. “We spend lots of effort to make our platform better, and the developer doesn’t get any benefit if Adobe only works with functions that every platform has. So we said that we want developers to take advantage of our better features, so that their apps work better on our platform than they work on anybody else’s.” On that he was right. Losing the ability to differentiate Apple’s platforms—allowing them to become commoditized like HP and Dell machines—would have meant death for the company.

There was, in addition, a more personal reason. Apple had invested in Adobe in 1985, and together the two companies had launched the desktop publishing revolution. “I helped put Adobe on the map,” Jobs claimed. In 1999, after he returned to Apple, he had asked Adobe to start making its video editing software and other products for the iMac and its new operating system, but Adobe refused. It focused on making its products for Windows. Soon after, its founder, John Warnock, retired. “The soul of Adobe disappeared when Warnock left,” Jobs said. “He was the inventor, the person I related to. It’s been a bunch of suits since then, and the company has turned out crap.”

When Adobe evangelists and various Flash supporters in the blogosphere attacked Jobs for being too controlling, he decided to write and post an open letter. Bill Campbell, his friend and board member, came by his house to go over it. “Does it sound like I’m just trying to stick it to Adobe?” he asked Campbell. “No, it’s facts, just put it out there,” the coach said. Most of the letter focused on the technical drawbacks of Flash. But despite Campbell’s coaching, Jobs couldn’t resist venting at the end about the problematic history between the two companies. “Adobe was the last major third party developer to fully adopt Mac OS X,” he noted.

Apple ended up lifting some of its restrictions on cross-platform compilers later in the year, and Adobe was able to come out with a Flash authoring tool that took advantage of the key features of Apple’s iOS. It was a bitter war, but one in which Jobs had the better argument. In the end it pushed Adobe and other developers of compilers to make better use of the iPhone and iPad interface and its special features.

Jobs had a tougher time navigating the controversies over Apple’s desire to keep tight control over which apps could be downloaded onto the iPhone and iPad. Guarding against apps that contained viruses or violated the user’s privacy made sense; preventing apps that took users to other websites to buy subscriptions, rather than doing it through the iTunes Store, at least had a business rationale. But Jobs and his team went further: They decided to ban any app that defamed people, might be politically explosive, or was deemed by Apple’s censors to be pornographic.

The problem of playing nanny became apparent when Apple rejected an app featuring the animated political cartoons of Mark Fiore, on the rationale that his attacks on the Bush administration’s policy on torture violated the restriction against defamation. Its decision became public, and was subjected to ridicule, when Fiore won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in April. Apple had to reverse itself, and Jobs made a public apology. “We’re guilty of making mistakes,” he said. “We’re doing the best we can, we’re learning as fast as we can—but we thought this rule made sense.”

It was more than a mistake. It raised the specter of Apple’s controlling what apps we got to see and read, at least if we wanted to use an iPad or iPhone. Jobs seemed in danger of becoming the Orwellian Big Brother he had gleefully destroyed in Apple’s “1984” Macintosh ad. He took the issue seriously. One day he called the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman to discuss how to draw lines without looking like a censor. He asked Friedman to head an advisory group to help come up with guidelines, but the columnist’s publisher said it would be a conflict of interest, and no such committee was formed.

The pornography ban also caused problems. “We believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone,” Jobs declared in an email to a customer. “Folks who want porn can buy an Android.”

This prompted an email exchange with Ryan Tate, the editor of the tech gossip site Valleywag. Sipping a stinger cocktail one evening, Tate shot off an email to Jobs decrying Apple’s heavy-handed control over which apps passed muster. “If Dylan was 20 today, how would he feel about your company?” Tate asked. “Would he think the iPad had the faintest thing to do with ‘revolution’? Revolutions are about freedom.”

To Tate’s surprise, Jobs responded a few hours later, after midnight. “Yep,” he said, “freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom. The times they are a changin’, and some traditional PC folks feel like their world is slipping away. It is.”

In his reply, Tate offered some thoughts on Flash and other topics, then returned to the censorship issue. “And you know what? I don’t want ‘freedom from porn.’ Porn is just fine! And I think my wife would agree.”

“You might care more about porn when you have kids,” replied Jobs. “It’s not about freedom, it’s about Apple trying to do the right thing for its users.” At the end he added a zinger: “By the way, what have you done that’s so great? Do you create anything, or just criticize others’ work and belittle their motivations?”

Tate admitted to being impressed. “Rare is the CEO who will spar one-on-one with customers and bloggers like this,” he wrote. “Jobs deserves big credit for breaking the mold of the typical American executive, and not just because his company makes such hugely superior products: Jobs not only built and then rebuilt his company around some very strong opinions about digital life, but he’s willing to defend them in public. Vigorously. Bluntly. At two in the morning on a weekend.” Many in the blogosphere agreed, and they sent Jobs emails praising his feistiness. Jobs was proud as well; he forwarded his exchange with Tate and some of the kudos to me.

Still, there was something unnerving about Apple’s decreeing that those who bought their products shouldn’t look at controversial political cartoons or, for that matter, porn. The humor site launched a “Yes, Steve, I want porn” web campaign. “We are dirty, sex-obsessed miscreants who need access to smut 24 hours a day,” the site declared. “Either that, or we just enjoy the idea of an uncensored, open society where a techno-dictator doesn’t decide what we can and cannot see.”

At the time Jobs and Apple were engaged in a battle with Valleywag’s affiliated website, Gizmodo, which had gotten hold of a test version of the unreleased iPhone 4 that a hapless Apple engineer had left in a ba............
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