Citizen Apple: A spotty record of giving back to tech

Credit: Image credit: flickr/Wonderlane

Under CEO Tim Cook, Apple has started to repair its reputation for being cold-hearted and tight-fisted. But when it comes to giving back to the technology industry, Apple's record is spotty.

Apple is the world's most valuable company - and one of its wealthiest. The Cupertino, Calif. firm reported a quarterly net profit of $13.1 billion on record revenue of $57.6 billion in its most recent fiscal quarter and is engaged in an aggressive $60 billion stock repurchase plan.

That money and Apple's priceless brand give the company huge influence in Silicon Valley and throughout the technology community. But that influence often doesn't translate into action.

Despite its growing size, wealth and prominence in the last 15 years, Apple has steered clear of involvement with or direct financial support of many open source software foundations and influential industry consortiums. That, even as competitors such as Google, Microsoft and Samsung have stepped up their support of those groups during the same period.

Almost three years into the tenure of CEO Tim Cook, Apple's record of giving back to the technology community remains spotty, at best. Today, a gulf persists between Apple's reliance on the fruits of the labors of open source community, standards and industry groups and its support of those same organizations.

For an example of this, look no further than the open source community. Apple's ties to open source are substantial. The company's OS X operating system is the most commonly used Unix distribution. Furthermore, Apple makes extensive use of open source components across its product portfolio. The company lists dozens of open source projects and components that it contributes code to: from the Apache web server, to the zlib data compression tool.

In official statements, Apple makes much of its reliance on open source and its work to promote the use of open source software more broadly. However, that support typically does not extend to the open source organizations that manage those projects.

Apple, as an example, bundles software from the Apache Software Foundation with its OS X operating system, but does not financially support the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) in any way. That is in contrast to Google and even Microsoft, Apple's two chief competitors, which are both Platinum sponsors of ASF -- signifying a contribution of $100,000 annually to the Foundation. Sponsorships range as low as $5,000 a year (Bronze), said Sally Khudairi, ASF's Director of Marketing and Public Relations.

The ASF launched the Sponsorship program in 2006 to offset the day-to-day operational expenses and overhead administrative costs of the organization, Khundari said. Asked about Apple's financial contributions, she said she couldn't find any record of Apple - the company - offering financial support to Apache.

The ASF is vendor-neutral and all code contributions to the Foundation are done on an individual basis. Apple employees are frequent, individual contributors to Apache. However, their employer is not, Khudairi noted.

The company has been a sponsor of ApacheCon, a for-profit conference that runs separately from the Foundation - but not in the last 10 years. "We were told they didn't have the budget," she said of efforts to get Apple's support for ApacheCon in 2004, a year in which the company reported net income of $276 million on revenue of $8.28 billion.

There has not been any subsequent conversation on Apple sponsoring ApacheCon in the last 10 years, though Khundari notes that the company has contributed in-kind to ApacheCon events with "speakers from Apple", attendees, and Birds-of-a-Feather sessions and MeetUps.

The story is the same at OASIS, the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, which is based in Burlington, Mass. The non-profit consortium is dedicated to the development, convergence and adoption of open standards for security, cloud computing, SOA, web services, the Smart Grid, electronic publishing, emergency management, and other areas.

In its 20th year, OASIS counts more than 600 member organizations, including IBM and Microsoft as Foundational Sponsors, who contribute upwards of $50,000 a year to the group. Most corporate members pay around $6,000 a year to belong, which allows them to participate in OASIS committees and get input into the development of industry standards, according to Carol Geyer, OASIS Senior Director of Communications.

Geyer said her organization has done "lots of outreach" to Apple and other firms over the years, and regularly contacts Apple about becoming a member.

"Whenever we're spinning up a new working group where we think they could contribute we will reach out and encourage them to join," she said. But those communications always go in one direction, Geyer said, with Apple declining the entreaties.

Today, the company has no presence on any of the Organization's 100-odd active committees, which are developing cross-industry technology standards such as The Key Management Interoperability Protocol (KMIP) and the Public-Key Cryptography Standard (PKCS).

"Sometimes it takes a company a while to come around," Geyer offered as an explanation, noting that Microsoft was, at first, reluctant to participate in OASIS committees. "But they came on board 15 years ago, and now they're a Foundational member," she said. Asked to name another company of Apple's stature who does not belong, Geyer cited Amazon.com - but added that OASIS is in very active discussions with Amazon about membership, which is not the case with Apple.

"Certainly we would love it if they joined. We welcome them to come and participate in open standards," Geyer said.

Apple's reticence has raised eyebrows in other areas, as well. The company is pointedly not a member of the Trusted Computing Group (TCG), an international industry standards group that has developed technical specifications and standards in areas such as authentication, cloud security, data protection, and mobile security. (Disclaimer: the Trusted Computing Group has sponsored a security news web site that this author founded.) It's an interesting absence given that Apple's key suppliers like AMD, NVIDIA and Qualcomm as well as competitors such as Samsung, Microsoft and Google are all TCG members.

Gal Shpantzer, an independent security researcher, notes that Apple leverages - at least indirectly - the fruits of the TCG's labor. Apple's secure enclave technology anchors features such as its biometric TouchID in the iPhone 5s. The secure enclave is believed to leverage the TrustZone portion of the ARM processor. ARM is part of the TCG, Shpantzer notes, but Apple is not.

"Apple's dominance in the handheld market is partly due to the security investments made in the iPhone security architecture. Part of this is the hardware-enabled secure enclave for the iPhone," Shpantzer said.

Major endpoint players such as Microsoft and Google already make substantial use of the TCG and its Trusted Platform Module (TPM) in Windows and on the new Chrome books.

Shpantzer believes that Apple's dominant position as a manufacturer of mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad compel the company to get behind the TCG and its technology. Having Apple pushing TCG standards and concepts in OS X and its iPad and iPhone would be a positive development for the entire technology ecosystem, Shpantzer argues.

"[TCG] is a diverse group of hardware and software vendors who are working on hard security problems in the mobile, network and desktop markets," Shpantzer wrote in e-mail. "Apple would be a big addition to the TCG membership due to [its] position as the dominant handset and tablet maker with iOS, as well as the growing popularity of OS X on the desktop and laptop markets. TCG's coverage for all the major platforms in use today and in the near future would meaningfully expand."

Asked to comment, the TCG confirmed that Apple is not a member, but said that it is always interested in speaking to companies about the benefits of TCG membership.

Apple did not respond to multiple e-mail and phone requests from ITworld seeking comment on this story.

The debate over Apple's corporate citizenship is, by no means, limited to its contributions to the technology community.

The Cupertino firm has long had a reputation for secrecy and sports a notoriously opaque corporate culture, which many attributed to the late CEO Steve Jobs. An almost Dickensian tight-fistedness was part of that. During his life, Jobs made little note of his own philanthropic giving. And Jobs notoriously shuttered Apple's philanthropic programs after his return to the CEO position in the late 1990s, and never reinstated them, despite the company's dazzling success in the decade that followed.

There are some exceptions. Since 2006 the company has contributed tens of millions of dollars to The Global Fund, which fights HIV/AIDS in Africa, through sales of PRODUCT RED products. Jobs also got Apple to team with other high tech firms, including eBay and HP, to fund the construction of a $2 billion hospital complex at Stanford University.

There were widely held expectations of change with the ascension of current Apple CEO Tim Cook to the top post in August 2011. Thus far, the CEO has instituted a charitable matching program for employees and made substantial charitable gifts of his own.

But those who hoped that Apple, under Cook's leadership, would loosen the strings of its bulging corporate purse and start giving back to the technology community are still waiting for change that has yet to come.

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