Kirk McElhearn over at MacWorld.com begins a lively discussion about Why Apple is making OS X more like iOS and how both Microsoft and Apple seem to be blending the best features of each OS. There are excellent reasons for doing this, but there are plenty of ugly ones too. Something to keep in mind is that these are not entirely separate operating systems. Apple developed iOS based on a cut down version of Mac OS X’s core technology. Keeping these two platforms in synch means a vast cost savings in support and development, and also ensures that its easier to port Apple applications to work as seamlessly as possible no matter what the target hardware is.
There are plenty of uglies to go along with the practical cost savings though.
You cannot go a day in the world of tech without reading about patents, and lawsuits based on patents. Not that long ago, companies patented processes around new technologies based on groundbreaking research. After competitors found themselves locked out of new markets, they began block patenting – meaning, find some process that doesn’t exactly build on a previous patent, but might block a development path from it. Bad, but it got worse.
Along the way, it became clear that the US Patent & Trademark Office is content to do no due diligence around prior art or obviousness. You get stupid stuff, like patenting how to swing a cat on a swing. You also get the absurd, such as the Halliburton patent on patenting to block another patent (the very technique outlined above). Then you get patents on business processes implemented in technology, and patents on processes which amount to patenting a user interface. It is arguable that implementing an old idea on a new platform is original – its an original implementation, but doesn’t this amount to use of prior art? No, I appreciate that its a tough call.
But where I am going with this is straight to all the patents filed by parties (Apple, Microsoft in particular, though they are not alone in this at all) related to the user interfaces and processes that originate on mobile devices. Having claimed those, they want to implement those on the desktop – where previous attempts to protect look and feel failed in 1994 using copyright law. Look and feel is easier to protect if its associated with a patent.
This increases the virulence of competition between players in the computer technology markets, but it also translates into pervasive control of the market over the huge number of third party developers that support popular platforms. With the Windows Marketplace / Xbox Live Marketplace / X, iTunes and the Mac App Store, the core OS providers leverage the system itself as the first marketplace for products that run on those environments. This is not altogether different from what culminated in the European Union Microsoft competition case, in which Europe recognized control of this first marketplace to be an anti-competitive advantage. Now you can argue that the ability to purchase a CD in retail (or whatever venue) or even downloads directly from vendor’s site will offset this advantage. It won’t, for the following reasons:
- The operating system vendor can deny access to critical features (truly critical or perceptually critical) if a product is not sold through their store venue
- The operating system vendor by virtue of being all the user interacts with, has the first opportunity to expose a product to the customer (or to expose your competitors)
- The operating system vendor can manipulate product pricing (and force vendors to comply) to harm competitive venues
- The operating system vendor removes direct upgrade and upsell opportunities by controlling the vendors knowledge of who is using their products (your customer list)
Operating system vendors will do these things, because they’ve done them before. Or, they are already a good way there to accomplishing them. Don’t drink their Kool-Aid and believe that the only impetus for these practices is to improve the end user experience, and that end user experience alone is what sells.