Apple's operating systems: Fortresses or prisons?

Apple continues to add features that close the operating systems to competition but at the same time make them more secure

Many of the same capabilities that make Apple's iOS and Mac OS X operating systems secure are those that close the platform in some way.

Security experts who argue that Apple's iOS is the most secure consumer operating system to date, for example, generally do so because of the closed software ecosystem, not because the operating system has more or better security features than its competitors. Yet, iOS is like a house with bars on the windows and a guard at the only door: It's hard to figure out whether it's a prison or a fortress.

The iOS operating system is not alone. Apple is obviously porting many of its ideas to the mobile operating system's big brother, Mac OS X. Mandatory sandboxing, a closed app store, and code signing are all being deployed in some form. While they are security improvements, they also reduce competition and make it harder to tinker with the operating system.

On Tuesday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation took issue with many of the changes and called for Apple to support a more open platform. The public announcement followed a similar call by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak for Apple to open its system.

"While Apple's products have many virtues, they are marred by an ugly set of restrictions on what users and programmers can do with them," writes the EFF.

The group points out that much of Apple's strategy is driven by the bottom line -- a closed operating system is a monopoly that the owner can exploit for profit. Apple makes 30 percent on every app sold in its App Store, whether to iOS users or Mac owners. The limitations on software developers appear to make the platform more secure in many ways, since the App Store essentially is a whitelist of vetted applications. To what degree no one knows, since Apple has restricted that information as well, but potentially malicious programs have been posted -- if rarely -- to the App Store in the past.

Apple is not alone in its quest to close its operating system. Microsoft has announced technologies such as the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) that will allow the company to lock the Windows operating system and only allow it to run approved code, although the feature can be turned off by PC makers. In addition, the company plans to release its own restricted version of Windows, Windows RT, that could offer security benefits and a more friendly user experience, but at the same time lock out tinkerers and unofficial developers.

The EFF noted Microsoft's direction but argued that Apple now leads the pack. While Apple's control over its hardware and software platforms have allowed the company to innovate, it is also locking in the company's profits to the detriment of an open platform, the digital-rights group argues.

"What Apple has is the institutional wisdom to know better and the ability to fix the situation," says the EFF. "Apple understands the importance of open platforms: their devices wouldn't exist without them. Apple's incredibly strong brand and stature in the marketplace mean that the company could give people the freedom to tinker with their devices without measurably affecting its own profits or the experience of its 'mainstream', non-tinkering users."

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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