Does Apple have to worry about Tim Wu? — updated

President Biden’s newly appointed special assistant for tech and competition is an enemy of monopolies and a fierce proponent of open systems.

Wu’s “The Master Switch: The rise and fall of information empires” (2010) mentions Apple 117 times. A sample:

“There’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask you,” [Wu told Wozniac in 2006]. “What happened with the Mac? You could open up the Apple II, and there were slots and so on, and anyone could write for it. The Mac was way more closed. What happened?”

“Oh,” said Wozniak. “That was Steve. He wanted it that way. The Apple II was my machine, and the Mac was his.”

Apple’s origins were pure Steve Wozniak, but as everyone knows, it was the other founder, Steve Jobs, whose ideas made Apple what it is today. Jobs maintained the early image that he and Wozniak created, but beginning with the Macintosh in the 1980s, and accelerating through the age of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, he led Apple computers on a fundamentally different track.

Jobs is a man who would seem as much at home in Victorian England as behind the counter of a sushi bar: he is an apostle of perfectibility and believes in a single best way of performing any task and presenting the results. As one might expect, his ideas embody an aesthetic philosophy as much as a sense of functionality, which is why Apple’s products look so good while working so well. But those ideas have also long been at odds with the principles of the early computing industry, of the Apple II and of the Internet, sometimes to the detriment of Apple itself.

As Wozniak told me, the Macintosh, launched in 1984, marked a departure from many of his ideas as realized in the Apple II. To be sure, the Macintosh was radically innovative in its own right, being the first important mass-produced computer to feature a “mouse” and a “desktop”—ideas born in the mind of Douglas Engelbart in the 1950s, ideas that had persisted without fructifying in computer science labs ever since.* Nevertheless the Mac represented an unconditional surrender of Wozniak’s openness, as was obvious from the first glance: gone was the concept of the hood. You could no longer easily open the computer and get at its innards. Generally, only Apple stuff, or stuff that Apple approved, could run on it (as software) or plug into it (as peripherals). Apple now refused to license its operating system, meaning that a company like Dell couldn’t make a Mac-compatible computer. If you wanted a laser printer, software, or virtually any accessory, it was to Apple you had to turn. Apple thus became the final arbiter over what the Macintosh was and was not, rather in the way that AT&T at one time had sole discretion over what could and what could not connect to the telephone network.

Thus via the Mac, Apple was at once an innovative and a completely retrograde company. Jobs had elected the design principles that had governed the Hollywood studios, Theodore Vail’s AT&T, indeed anyone who ever dreamed of a perfect system…

It is the old conflict between the concepts of the open system and the closed, between the forces of centralized order and those of dispersed variety. The antagonists assume new forms, the generals change, but essentially the same battles are fought over and over again. It is the very essence of the Cycle [of disruption], which even a technology as radical and powerful as the Internet seems able at most to moderate but not to abolish.

My take: Judging from recent interviews (his 2016 conversation with Ezra Klein is especially revealing), Wu understands the power of platforms and the failure of antitrust law to keep up. Having a good heart matters to Wu. Facebook and Amazon probably have more to fear from him than Google and Apple.

UPDATE: Wu mentions Apple explicitly in a 2010 piece in the Wall Street Journal. Note how he defines the market the company “owns”:

From “In the Grip of the New Monopolists” posted Nov. 13, 2010:

The Internet has long been held up as a model for what the free market is supposed to look like—competition in its purest form. So why does it look increasingly like a Monopoly board? Most of the major sectors today are controlled by one dominant company or an oligopoly. Google “owns” search; Facebook, social networking; eBay rules auctions; Apple dominates online content delivery; Amazon, retail; and so on.

20 Comments

  1. Romeo A Esparrago Jr said:
    All I know is that I have an LG monitor, Logitech ergo-mouse, Kinesis ergo-keyboard, Huddly go webcam, HP printer directly attached to my MacBook Pro.

    I buy from a variety of online stores like Amazon Smile/Prime, a lot of 3rd party widgets/accessories, various UI/Ux & graphics & barcode software, etc etc all non-Apple.
    Feels open to me.

    And Apple still doesn’t have majority share in PCs & smartphones, desktop & mobile OS’s.

    So yeh about open systems & monopolies.

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    March 6, 2021
  2. Gregg Thurman said:
    Wu isn’t thinking broadly enough. The “open” architecture he desires is the internet (and even that has protocols). Anything you can do on your computer, tablet or smartphone can be done in the cloud. Changing components within your device doesn’t change, or improve, your access to the internet. And if you must tinker with a computer’s innards you can always buy a Wintel (which has a 90% share).

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    March 6, 2021
    • Romeo A Esparrago Jr said:
      Yep. Open & non-monopoly means choices. Apple’s not twisting arms or breaking legs to use them.

      Like bas flik says, consumers have the freedom to choose or not choose Apple.

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      March 6, 2021
  3. Greg Lippert said:
    And if you don’t want Apple hardware, there are plenty of alternatives. You don’t have to have Apple in your life if you choose not too. Not locked out.

    Maybe not as good but that could be said for any industry. Porsche has a lock on Porsche. But I can get a Ford.

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    March 6, 2021
  4. Steven Philips said:
    I wonder if he has the same level of intellectual critique of political systems, politicians and parties? Also, I think you might see in Facebook what happens with “open”! So, yeah, like Gregg says, I think his views are a bit narrow and agenda driven. BUT – I haven’t read that deeply either.

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    March 6, 2021
  5. bas flik said:
    i agree. really strange to fight a monopoly while there is no market dominance. aapl itself is a niche. 90% is chinese terrible android stuff and windows. attacking msft make more sence. and why not attack asml. they are a real monopolist. without ASML the future of computing is death. These platforms are terrible but were made by consumers. i thougt anti trust laws were made to protect consumers against high pricing? but consumers decided to pay nothing for software. they hate to pay anything for software making piracy a big problem for software companies. so platforms came up with the idea to do everything for free of cash. they did not ask for currency but data instead. consumers liked this idea and stormed facebook et al with free subscriptions. These are not top down merger like monopolies like standard oil but buttom up voluntarily consumer built power houses. monopolies yes but everybody wants them. except a few intellectuels who lost connection with mankind or politician who see their power being evaporated. its a political game.

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    March 6, 2021
  6. bas flik said:
    will american politicians destroy fb aapl googl amzn and give the world to Alibaba and friends? this is the real question. all of africa is in facebook and instagram. 1 billion people. NSA really likes. EU will try to annoy usa and chinese platforms as much is possible.

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    March 6, 2021
  7. Kirk DeBernardi said:
    — quote —
    “As one might expect, his ideas embody an aesthetic philosophy as much as a sense of functionality, which is why Apple’s products look so good while working so well.”

    Probably why they sell so well too — AND with a 98% sat-rate.

    — quote —
    “But those ideas have also long been at odds with the principles of the early computing industry, of the Apple II and of the Internet, sometimes to the detriment of Apple itself.”

    To the detriment?

    Think different.

    — quote —
    “Apple now refused to license its operating system…”

    Homogenization is best left to dairy products — not devices and platforms.

    — quote —
    “Jobs had elected the design principles that had governed the Hollywood studios…”

    The very thing that distinguished his company from others.

    Isn’t it a good analogy here that there are those who build widgets and those who build more satisfying widgets?

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    March 6, 2021
  8. Fred Stein said:
    Technology is like water. It will flow, leak, evaporate and come down as rain somewhere else. Yes, we need regulation. But not regulation driven by confirmation bias.

    Wu’s words reveal his bias, ” But those ideas have also long been at odds with the principles of the early computing industry, of the Apple II and of the Internet” Wu ignores the first 30 years of computing. He throws out info does not match his thinking.

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    March 6, 2021
  9. David Emery said:
    I spent most of my career working on government contracts with an open systems ‘perspective’ In some cases, that was specifying the appropriate standards so that we could do competitive bidding. In other cases, that was developing those standards. In still other cases, that was looking at business cases for -lifecycle costs and benefits- on selecting open vs proprietary solutions.

    A couple things from that: (1) governments often have different ways to evaluate costs & benefits than commercial companies (or individuals). What might be the best choice for a commercial company could conflict with governmental goals that are not strictly financial. The recent discussions around sustaining domestic production vs continuing to import from China is a good example of this. (2) companies have both technical and business incentives to distinguish themselves through proprietary solutions. Sometimes you want the ‘best technical solution’. Other times competition on cost against the standard that provides less technical capability but a financial advantage makes sense.

    The right way for the government to promote open systems competition is by supporting appropriate standards to make a standards based solution both cost and technically competitive. But that will not be achieved by prohibiting innovative companies with proprietary solutions from competing.

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    March 6, 2021
    • David Emery said:
      Particularly with respect to personal computing/desktops, the Wintel standard produced a lot of value, but at a significant technical “cost” because of the maintenance/sustainment overhead for the buggy and insecure software. What’s been fascinating to me is how Apple has driven the value proposition in a different direction, in part by providing alternative value to the “buy off the marketplace and integrate it yourself” way of doing things.

      It all goes back to “defining the market.” Should that be ‘what you put in the box’ or ‘the box itself including what runs on it’ or ‘the ecosystem that the box is part of?’

      5
      March 6, 2021
      • David Emery said:
        Oh, and a side thought “You are posting too quickly, slow down” has to be one of the most obnoxious error messages I’ve seen in a while! For this group, there should NOT be a constraint on “speed of thought” even if there are limits on the length of an individual post.

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        March 6, 2021
        • ““You are posting too quickly, slow down” has to be one of the most obnoxious error messages I’ve seen in a while!”

          Did Apple 3.0 say that?!

          2
          March 6, 2021
          • David Emery said:
            Yeah, it did!! My original message was too long, so I cut part of it, posted the first part, then replied to that with the rest of the message. That’s when I got “yelled at.”

            3
            March 6, 2021
  10. Fred Stein said:
    Is Apple closed? 23,000,000 developers create massive value using Apple’s secure, reliable APIs, SDKs, compilers, developer support tools and more. 3rd parties can repair Apple devices or make devices that work with all Apple devices. We can trade stocks, get cash from ATMs, board planes to anywhere in the world, hail rides, and much more with free Apps where Apple takes no ‘cut.’

    Apple does control access, as do our national parks or hotels and entertainment venues.

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    March 6, 2021
    • Kirk DeBernardi said:
      @ Fred Stein —

      Sounds pretty open to me, Fred.

      Add to that — most Apps in the App Store are free with the primary intent of getting connected to customers on a beloved platform.

      The cash can come later convincing people of the value to part with it.

      2
      March 6, 2021
      • Gregg Thurman said:
        The cash can come later convincing people of the value to part with it.

        How many razor blades would you like with that free razor?

        I didn’t see anybody filing anti-trust against Gillette.

        5
        March 6, 2021
    • David Emery said:
      By most definitions of “open systems”, Apple products are not. You can attach peripherals, but that’s about it That’s OK, they provide value with the proprietary interfaces.

      The interesting kinds of regulation that could be proposed include:
      (1) separating Mac OS from Apple hardware, requiring Apple to license it to other hardware vendors
      (2) removing the App Store from Apple
      (3) forcing Apple to implement ‘open standard’ interfaces for their software. (Apple could probably respond, “Our OS can conform to the POSIX standard” but I can assure you an app built as a ‘strictly conforming POSIX application’ would not be something you’d want to use….)

      Formally, the definition I remember for “open system” is “one whose components conform to interface specifications that are defined by publicly available configuration managed documents and for which there exist a notion of conformance. It is best if conformance to those interfaces can be tested through a third party verification process.”

      2
      March 6, 2021
  11. Dan Scropos said:
    If Apple had this *exact* same ecosystem, the same rules, and minimal profits, rest assured, there would be no scrutiny. This is about money, plain and simple. If it weren’t, these issues would have addressed during the App Store’s infancy.

    5
    March 6, 2021
  12. Gregg Thurman said:
    This is a modern day land (money) grab by governments eager for new sources of revenue.

    In a way I’m pleased to see these governmental robber barons turning up the heat. Sooner, rather than later, rules, regulations and/or laws will be generated that will Companies something to actually fight against (starting with Arizona) that will end up in the SCOTUS.

    As currently comprised (with no changes in sight for several years) these regulation initiatives will be dead on arrival.

    3
    March 6, 2021

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