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Everybody upgrades
3 min read

Everybody upgrades

Earlier today John Gruber knocked out his theory on Why Apple Won’t Open Source Its Apps. While I usually agree with most of the arguments Gruber makes,¹ though not always the way in which he makes them, I have to take issue with his position here. He posits that Apple’s upgrade-the-OS-every-year strategy is the impetus behind keeping its well-known apps closed-source:

The role these apps play isn’t just to make Mac OS X look good compared to Windows or Linux, but also to help make each new version of Mac OS X look better than the previous one; i.e. to convince Mac users that it’s worth paying for the latest upgrade.

If the source code to these apps were made available, the best features from new versions of these apps could be ported back to previous versions, lessening the incentive for users to upgrade.

I would argue that those who would consider modifying the source to these apps, or even those who would simply consider using others’ modifications, are the exact same people who are going to upgrade blindly anyway.

In other words, the hackers dissecting these programs will be the first in line to buy the new OS. I think John would be hard-pressed to find someone within his circle who doesn’t upgrade immediately (or as soon as it’s agreed that the upgrade is safe) each year when there’s a new point release; I know I can’t — we look foward to the release date. I don’t see how opening up the code would change that. More to the point, I think it’s safe to say that most of the people itching to upgrade each year don’t use Apple’s bundled apps anyway.

So, with John and I’s crowd out of the way, we are left only with Joe EndUser who isn’t going to use any iSoftware unless it comes from or through Software Update, especially if he bought a Mac specifically for these applications. Apple is still free to market to this guy, and because he doesn’t know or care that better software options are available (and certainly hasn’t used any of these non-Apple apps in lieu of Apple’s offerings), he’ll still want to upgrade for all the same reasons he’s upgraded in the past.

John uses iChat as an example application to make his case. He points out that there’s a hack for it that will give you tabs, and argues that if the app was open-sourced, the hack wouldn’t feel so hacky because it would be a lot easier for the coder to get it ‘right,’ which would subsequently marginalize Apple’s ability to market the feature (i.e., it would already be out there). Point taken. However, my view is that Joe EndUser is not even going to become aware of tabs until Apple tries to sell him on them. I think my position here is driven home by the fact that it’s 2006 and we are talking about adding tabs to a chat application (i.e., they aren’t already there and Joe is none the wiser); Joe doesn’t even know he needs tabs and he’s certainly not actively seeking out an application that has them.² Moreover, were Joe to look for and find such an application, I’m far from convinced that this would deter him from upgrading, unless, of course, I’m misinformed and people do in fact pay ~$130/year for slight upgrades to these apps without taking into consideration that the OS itself has usually undergone some major changes (security, speed, etc). Granted, Joe EndUser might not care about the under-the-hood goings-on, but I have to think that they play at least some part in his decision to upgrade, if not a major part, and are perhaps a bigger draw than tabbed iChat.

Note that I’m not taking a position either way on whether Apple should open its applications up (if I were Apple, I probably wouldn’t), I’m merely pointing out that I’m not entirely sold on John’s conclusion that open-sourcing the apps would likely cause Apple’s upgrade program to suffer.

  1. I’m a card-carrying member of Daring Fireball. Really, he sends you a card along with your t-shirt (and I love him for it :).
  2. One needs to look no further than IE, the world’s most popular browser by far, and the fact that it doesn’t yet have native tabs to see this point made ridiculously clear. It’s 2000-fucking-6 people! Not only does it not have them, but MS is talking up the tabs in IE7 as if it’s the new thing, and you know what, the majority of the world buys it. Nevermind that some of us have been using tabbed browsers for ~5 years and couldn’t imagine the web experience without them.
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