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What Open Source Can Learn From Steve Jobs, Part 1

What Open Source Can Learn From Steve Jobs, Part 1

The sort of end-to-end control that Apple exercises rubs many in the Free/Libre Open Source Software community the wrong way. However, when F/LOSS proponents criticize this, we ignore one fact -- the customer is always right. They have the absolute right to give their business to whomever they choose, and rants of "you're trading away your freedom" are counterproductive.

The passing of Steve Jobs earlier this month triggered reactions that spanned the gamut -- from expressions of appreciation and sober reflection to some tasteless extremes of zealotry from a subset of the open source community.

We can learn a lot from Steve Jobs, even if we ultimately have different goals.

'Make Love, not War'

Back in 1997, Steve Jobs made it clear that the way to go forward was not to continue with the "Apple vs. Microsoft" mentality but to concentrate on what made Apple uniquely Apple. As long as Apple was locked into direct competition with Microsoft, it yielded the home-field advantage. Apple products would be judged by their compatibility with Microsoft products, rather than on their own virtues and flaws. Saying "Apple is as good as Microsoft for doing X, Y and Z" implied that Microsoft was the gold standard.

Jobs recognized this as a strategic mistake -- and one that could not be overcome unless the thinking that led to it was exorcised. He made it clear that Apple should be competing with Apple, focusing on Apple's strengths rather than on what the competition was doing.

The end result, almost 15 years later, is that Microsoft leadership is obsessed about what Apple is doing, and Apple is not just back from the brink of bankruptcy, but also the most valuable company in the world.

Apple got where it is today by the leadership, from Jobs down, changing the "rules of engagement." No longer was it a war between rivals, but a focus on seducing the customer. Their mission: Figure out the next thing the customer wants before they're aware of it, trust that they'll recognize it when they see it, and wow them with how clean-looking and easy it is to use. Make computers and devices that are so seductive they're almost sexy.

The end result might be summed up as "don't make it look or work like a Microsoft product," but that would be a mistake. You don't get products like the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad by simply trying to be different from your competition -- that route gives you products that are just as clunky, but in a different way. Difference for the sake of difference rarely works out.

Yet, isn't that what so much open source has been accused of doing all these years, rather than focusing on its core strength as a solid piece of infrastructure that can be infinitely customized? Worse, it also has a history of actively demonizing for-profit companies as the enemy, rather than regarding them as legitimate competitors that should be courted to produce ports of commercial products, such as games, to run on open systems -- thus growing both interest and user base.

Marketing's Top Priority

Apple's design decisions have focused with laser precision on taking the end-user to the next step. Most recently it was "Flash will kill the battery life of the iPad and opens too many holes." So Flash on the iPad was out.

Similarly, the original iPhone didn't come with an App Store. The idea was that Apple partners would be the only ones to be "blessed" with the ability to write real applications for the iPhone. Everyone else was to be restricted to "Web apps."

It was only after people started jailbreaking their iPhones to add their own apps that Jobs saw that consumers wanted more than "Web apps" and reversed his stand against an App Store. Developers scream that Apple has too much control over the App Store, but customers depend on the fact that apps are prescreened -- and that they can always complain to Apple instead of some unknown developer.

The takeaway is that Jobs didn't just listen to customers -- he also learned from what they did and capitalized on it. Giving people what they want in exchange for their money gives both sides a win-win feeling. His message for developers was the same -- for those who weren't shouting so loudly that their "rights" had been infringed.

The sort of end-to-end control that Apple exercises rubs many in the Free/Libre Open Source Software community the wrong way. However, when F/LOSS proponents criticize this, we ignore one fact -- the customer is always right. They have the absolute right to give their business to whomever they choose, and rants of "you're trading away your freedom" are counterproductive. We also miss the point that the customer is trying to teach us -- that it's about the applications themselves, not any philosophical arguments over the merits of open source vs. proprietary programs, or the operating system's look and feel.

Find Out What They Really Want. Show Them How to Get It

When Henry Ford first started producing cheap cars, automobiles were expensive luxury items, handcrafted one at a time. People said there was no market for a cheap car. As Ford said, "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse."

Similarly, asking people what sort of computer or operating system they want will mostly get you something similar to what they have today -- just faster, cheaper, or with more storage. Not very imaginative, but then again, it takes considerable resources to bring out something truly different.

By the same token, most open source projects aren't showing much in the way of innovation because the financial model doesn't allow for adequate independent funding of research and development. This is one reason the open source ecosystem is littered with poorly iterated work-alikes; the other being the antagonism inside the F/LOSS movement toward producers of proprietary software -- the ones who have a financial stake in driving innovation.

We Can't Show Them How to Get It

Most of us have had the experience of switching someone to Linux, only to see their initial enthusiasm turn into frustration as they keep running into usability factors -- the greatest one being that they can't run their favorite programs. Users simply won't accept a cheap knock-off, not even for free. The "freedom" of a F/LOSS computer quickly becomes a millstone, and eventually they either ask us to reinstall their old operating system or, if we've been particularly obnoxious in advocating for F/LOSS, they just quietly buy a new computer.

We know what people want to do -- run the programs of their choice. We just can't show them how to do it, because we're too busy fiddling with the less unimportant parts, like trying to make a desktop environment that looks more like a Mac.

It would be far more constructive to strike up a working relationship with the producers of proprietary programs to help them get onto open platforms. Unfortunately, admitting that proprietary programs have their place is something that some people just can't do. Their zealotry blinds them, and makes them focus on the competition from proprietary software instead of looking at the end-user. Earlier this month, we saw a public example of how this attitude can turn ugly.

Stay tuned for What Open Source Can Learn From Steve Jobs, Part 2.


Barbara Hudson's daughters and her dogs are a large part of who she is. As for computers, she's been writing code for longer than she really wants to admit. Now that she's returned to independent development, her current focus is on creating simpler and more secure code libraries. Her dream project? Creating the ultimate chess program. You can contact her at barbara.hudson@milsecure.org.


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