OS X Mountain Lion introduces a new capability that disables apps from installing unless they come from the Mac App Store or the app includes an Apple-issued digital certificate proving the developer's identity. This will make it harder for malware to install itself on a Mac and puts a stop to the hopeless game that antimalware programs play in trying to figure out which apps to block. Instead, with Mountain Lion, apps are whitelisted, and only whitelisted apps (more precisely, apps associated to their whitelisted developers) can be installed. Similar to Android, Mountain Lion lets users turn off that protection, which will be necessary for installing legitimate apps created before Apple's developer IDs become available. It's clear that Apple is moving OS X to the same gatekeeper model as iOS. I suspect Microsoft will follow this trajectory at some point.
This whitelist approach works when you have a single authority such as Apple or Microsoft as the gatekeeper. But it also tends to drive the distribution business to those gatekeepers. Developers grumble, but the truth is they make more money percentagewise from each sale in the App Store than they do when selling a physical copy via Amazon.com or Best Buy. The real economic issue for developers is not Apple's (or Microsoft's) cut but the fact that mobile apps sell for less than PC apps; as mobile devices and PCs converge, that lower price point may become universal.
Developers also dislike that Apple can block their apps entirely from distribution; there is no alternative route to the user but the App Store for iOS, and that could become the case over time for OS X. Microsoft is doing the same for Metro in Windows 8, and I'd be surprised if it didn't consider the signed-ID approach for all Windows 8 apps at some point.
The real issue here is not the walled garden, but Apple's and Microsoft's stewardship of their gardens. Apple's history is to create a planned community people want to live in, so they feel empowered by joining, not imprisoned. Thanks to overreach that led to antitrust consent decrees, Microsoft has avoided the appearance of controlling the environment that runs on its Windows, but now that those consent decrees are over, Microsoft has been moving to assert more control à la Apple. Only time will tell if it builds communities where people line up around the block, just to move in.
Both companies could still follow the path of AOL, whose early Web service was a pleasant gated community in the wilds of the newly discovered medium. But AOL started to lock the gates and exploit its prisoners -- er, users -- and people fled as fast as they could, leaving AOL a massive failure. That lesson gives some hope that Apple and Microsoft won't succumb to such behavior. But if either or both does, it will be much, much harder to get out of their planned communities -- really, planned ecosystems -- than it was to dump AOL.
The future is already here
Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion may not yet be released, but the future they represent is already here. We live some of it today when we use an iPhone, iPad, or OS X Lion-based Mac. We live some of it today when we use Windows Phone 7, Android, and Google Docs. We'll live more of it when OS X Mountain Lion and Windows 8 are released.
The walled garden concerns notwithstanding, that future is very appealing. It frees users from managing a set of silos and all the duplication that results from moving among them. It frees users to work, share, play, and learn anywhere. When you consider the mass positive disruption unleashed by the iPhone in five years and the iPad in just two, it's hard to not be excited as to what we'll gain as Apple and Microsoft prepare to step it up big time this year.
This article, "The post-PC future: Where Apple and Microsoft are driving us," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.