Every time Apple comes out with a new product there are people who complain about Apple’s “walled garden.” Such was the case with Apple’s new Mac App Store. Just like the App Store on the iPhone, the Mac App Store allows consumers to purchase applications for their Mac computers through an Apple-controlled store. The good part about this is that the Mac App Store is very simple to use, and Apple has proven time and again that “simple” is something that customers value highly. Installing an application takes but a single click, and since every application has to go through Apple’s approval process, there is no danger of downloading viruses or spyware, which is one less thing for the average computer muggle to worry about.
The bad part about this is that it’s Apple’s way or the highway. Apple can and does reject apps from its store for any and all reasons, and sometimes even apparently for no reason. Sometimes previously approved apps get yanked without warning. This offends a lot of people, including myself, because it goes against one of the principles of computing: namely, that I can use my computer to do whatever I wish. Why should Apple get to tell me what I can and can’t do with my own property?
Now, anyone who reads my blog knows I’m a big proponent of freedom, but I’m actually going to come down on Apple’s side, here. This is similar to the debate about Tivoization, which is essentially a question of whether TiVo can take a free, open-source, user-modifiable operating system (Linux) and then modify it to run on a non-free, non-open-source piece of hardware that is locked down and not editable by the user. I agree with Linus Torvalds: true freedom means the freedom to be a jerk and make things not free. In other words, if you don’t have the freedom to take this free piece of software and modify it in such a way, then it’s not really freedom in the first place.
Anyway, back to Apple: it all comes down to choice. Nobody is forced to buy Apple products. Nobody is forced to buy apps through the Mac App Store. People are free to use Windows or Linux instead. People are free to buy applications on CD-ROMs or from other websites instead. If Apple was forced to make the App Store open, or if it was illegal to run a “walled garden” app store such as it is, that wouldn’t actually help consumers because it would limit their choices. Before the App Store existed, consumers had no choice: they were forced to take risks downloading possibly unsafe applications from the internet, or they had to buy physical media from chain stores like Best Buy. Thanks to the Mac App Store, consumers now have a third alternative.
Let me make an analogy: how would you like it if I forced you to use Linux? After all, it is the most free and open operating system out there. Still, I bet you wouldn’t like it. I bet you would rather have the freedom to use whatever operating system you wanted, even if that meant using a non-free, closed and controlled operating system like Mac OS X.
True freedom means having the freedom to live in a walled garden if you so choose. If you don’t like Apple, don’t buy their stuff.
Footnote: I’d also like to point out that Apple is just following the rules of capitalism and competition. Consumers apparently want simple things that just work. Consumers apparently don’t care about openness. Consumers have voted with their wallet on these issues again and again, and the vote has overwhelmingly been in Apple’s favor. Apple competed against Microsoft and Google, and has done very well. If you don’t like it, don’t blame Apple, blame Microsoft and Google for not making products that can compete with the quality and ease-of-use of Apple’s craftsmanship.