Could forced freedom make Apple stronger?

Posted by ROB ENDERLE
Clearly, Apple will fight the recent ruling surrounding opening up phones - but they may do better if they just capitulate.  
 
Let me explain. Several years ago when Microsoft was having their massive battle with the European Commission about opening up interfaces I wondered if Microsoft’s eventual capitulation would help more than hurt the company.  

Could Forced Freedom Make Apple Stronger?It would seem that now that they have capitulated that the Server and Tools division that was most impacted is actually in far better shape than it was before the fight.  

Apple’s application approval process generally sucks and iTunes appears to more often be pointed at as a negative of the device rather than a positive now but competition could force Apple to address both turning them into advantages again. 

Let’s explore that. 

 
Microsoft’s Lesson
 
In my initial meetings with folks from Microsoft they were very combative with regard to the European Commission rulings and even though it appeared to me like fighting them would be excessively expensive, they were hell bent for leather to do just that.

They had been asked to open up their interfaces and their code so that competitors could better interoperate with Microsoft’s platforms, mostly in the server space, and Microsoft believed strongly that this intellectual property needed to be protected.

Steve BallmerI often thought, back then, that one of the primary reasons that Microsoft didn’t want to share the code was because it was embarrassingly poorly documented because I also knew that, inside of Microsoft, interoperability efforts were equally difficult due to this poor documentation.

In fact, it didn’t just impact interoperability but product updates as new developers had to decrypt the poor documentation from those that went before.  

 
However, after an impressive number of fines Microsoft eventually agreed to provide (create) the full documentation the European Commission demanded and the result actually benefited the company. 

Currently, Microsoft leads in interoperability amongst their competitors which means they are increasingly favored in mixed shops. 

There has been a noted improvement both in product quality and in interoperation within Microsoft because there is an enforced quality with regard to this critical documentation now.  

 
In hindsight had they embraced what the European Commission wanted more quickly, rather than fought them,  Microsoft would have saved billions in fines and been more competitive more quickly.  

Oh, and I should add, that customers, particularly those in mixed shops, were vastly happier with fully documented code than without it providing an additional competitive and financial benefit.  In the end, the Server and Tools division is arguably now the most successful in the company. 

 
Apple Impact
 
While Apple does a nice job of concealing problems with the iPhone it is hard to get around the fact that it sucks as a phone, the application approval process is insane, iTunes is for many more of a negative than a positive, and that Apple is bat-shit nuts about control. 

So, if Apple’s control is broken what happens?

Apple CEO Steve Jobs

This suggests that there could be more application stores for the iPhone but Apple had a similar problem in retail where most of the stores that sold Apple good didn’t showcase them well.  

So they created the Apple store which is currently ranked as one of the best stores chains of its type in the world. This would suggest that Apple would be driven to improve iTunes more aggressively and ensure it provided the best experience to both buyers and sellers of applications.

In short, it might address the user problems and the developer problems with the store while still providing a high level of quality assurance.  

 
Much of the problem associated with the iPhone sucking as a phone in the US is because of AT&T and the primary reason Apple has stayed with AT&T is because of Apple’s unique carrier contract. 

This contract gives Apple an inordinate amount of control over the phone and its eco system. If that control no longer matters it should be easier to get Apple to back down from using clauses that are effectively unenforceable anyway and open the door to Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile iPhones. 

As a result, the iPhone becomes a better phone.  

 
Wrapping Up: A Better or Bitter Apple?
 
As Microsoft discovered, sometimes it can be better to go along with a government request than to fight it particularly if what the government is trying to force you to do is actually good for your customers and developers.   

Apple logoMonopolies have a nasty habit of self-destructing because they tend to focus excessively on profit, in my experience, and healthy competition tends to assure that firms focus on their customers more than their executive bonuses. 

While we may never know this for sure, it is likely that this move by the US government to open up the iPhone could actually do more to assure its survival and success than hurt it, how soon it does that depends on how quickly Apple sees the bigger picture. 

Most companies are pretty stubborn, and Steve Job’s personal Reality Distortion Field won’t help here, but I think the end result could actually benefit the company more than hurt it.  

What do you think?

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