Apple vs. Open Government

There’s a very interesting new blog post by Adobe’s Rob Pinkerton worth reading, asking whether the folks at Apple have actually read the Open Government Directive. Rob’s main point is that Apple’s proprietary developer requirements stifle true openness and innovation: “I still find it hard to believe that a company that founded one of the most generative platforms in the PC era … could possibly work so hard to close down the openness of the Internet. Yet that is exactly what the iPad and iPhone strategy does – a strategy that contradicts the President’s Open Government goals and undermines Internet era innovation.” It might be a good business model, but Rob argues it isn’t good for open government.

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Matt Zuby

I am an advocate of open government. But, to me the blog entry sounded like a partner pissed about latest technology disagreements more than constructive help. You could probably write this blog about every other private corporation. I think it is turning away from the real issues of opengov iniatiative.

David Fletcher

Apple is a big supporter of HTML5 which will provide major opportunities for open government. I’m not knocking the article, but this attack by Adobe sounds a lot like another company’s attacks on Google. Innovation is good for this country and it certainly doesn’t hurt for government to provide information on the Apple platform, as long as it doesn’t ignore the others.

Bobby Caudill

David, as I’m sure you are aware, Adobe has a long heritage in the world of HTML and will continue to support HTML as it moves to HTML5 and beyond. And, while I agree wholeheartedly that government should take advantage of any and all opportunities to share information and drive participation with the public (as well as with itself), I sometimes wonder if the cart isn’t just a little before the horse. While HTML5 certainly holds promise for the future, is it really ready for today’s open government requirements? There’s at least another 5, if not 10 years, of development work to get to the point where HTML5 is a standard. That leaves an awful lot of room for inconsistency as technology companies attempt to integrate HTML5 into browsers and other display tools, not to mention, development tools. So, yes, keep working with it, keep trying new things, but, let’s not put the general public in the role of the beta testers. Open Government should just work for everyone, right?

Now with all this said, I’m not sure Rob’s article was at all directed at the specifics of Apple’s choice of technology, HTML5 or otherwise, but, rather Apple’s closed approach at the development and deployment of iPhone/iPad applications. In fact, he calls out specifically that he “cheered because the elegant and intuitive design of these devices helped people understand the possibilities of open government.” However, as nice as the platform is, Apple’s current approach forces developers who wish to target their platform to write specific code with little or no hope of being reusable elsewhere. And to Rob’s point, this approach simply seems to counter the spirit of Open Government.

Can open government apps be built using the Apple platform, sure, BUT, what if you are not one of the people who happen to have an iPhone or an iPad? How will government get to the rest of the public? Well, at this point, government will be forced to have a completely separate alternative. This is beginning to seem expensive and unnecessarily hard to maintain.

David Fletcher

@Bobby Caudill
When Utah was the first state to use Adobe Flash on our portal, some criticized us for not being open as well and said that Flash was a proprietary technology. We had verified that 97% of our user base had Flash installed on their machines and wanted to take advantage of that technology to portray an image for our state. At the same time, also checks and if Flash is not enabled, a non-Flash version is provided. The fact is that thousands of our citizens use Apple devices all day long, so we provide services on that platfrom to the degree that we are able. We provide the same services on other platforms. Yes, it is a little more expensive, but it is reality and we are doing our best to adapt to it. So, really the same principle applies to both companies, we provide Flash / non-Flash, as well as iPhone / non-iPhone. If we refuse to provide services to the iPhone / iPad, then open government still isn’t working for everyone.

Firoze Lafeer

I think if sites do choose to use things like Flash, we need to make sure any underlying data is readily available in an open format. Or as @David Fletcher has said, at least make a seamless alternative based on open standards.

As for the cost of iPhone/iPad native development, I can understand the argument against using public funds to develop apps for a closed platform. But there again I think the government focus needs to be not on apps, but squarely on open services (APIs), and open data. Then let citizens, citizen groups, and the market decide which apps are worth building for which platforms.

Bobby Caudill

David, I see the similarities and for sure, I understand the requirement (and the desire) to ensure all citizens are served, regardless of their preferred or available platforms. In fact, as guy who started building websites as far back in history as 1995, I can relate to the need to ‘gracefully degrade’ the capabilities of a site to match the end user’s environment.

While related, addressing multiple mobile platforms is a little bit different, at least given today’s circumstances. Since most mobile platforms are currently leveraged via platform specific applications, there is no reasonable means to have a ‘graceful degradation’ of service. Recognizing a need to minimize (or eliminate might be a better term) multiple development tracks, Adobe developed the ability to create applications one time, all within the CS5 environment, and then deploy to Flash and the iPhone, the iPhone app being a native application, not a Flash app. This approach was intended to allow customers the ability to develop once and reach the widest audience possible, essentially, the top 20 handsets. (19 of the top 20 handsets are Flash-enabled btw.) When I learned of this capability, I was very excited about the ramifications to government. Imagine getting to practically all of your citizen’s mobile platforms from one development effort!

However, with the stroke of a pen (well, a few sentences in Apple’s developer licensing agreement), the promise of this capability has been eliminated. Of course, Apple is entitled to make it’s own business decisions, I would never presume to tell any company how to develop, market and sell it’s products, but, you have to admit, it is a shame that government will not be able to leverage this approach.

Firoze, for sure, data should always be represented and available in an open format and again, I agree that it should be available via published (hopefully, standardized) APIs. As a system architect, I believe all modern information systems should be built this way, whether for open government purposes or not! 🙂 However, I’m not of the mindset that this is enough. While access to raw data is certainly a desired capability for some applications, in reality, the vast majority of citizens are simply not equipped to do anything with it! I, for one, look to government to provide me information (not just data) and a usable user experience to interact with that information, whether that be an interactive mashup style interface or even something as pedestrian as a plain old document!

I would love to see more open government conversations focus on the citizen’s “interaction experience”, with an understanding that this is at least as important as access to raw data, if not more so.