Depending on how you look at it, the security built into Apple’s latest desktop operating system is either a masterstroke in computer protection or the latest twist in the company’s never-ending quest to rule the tech world.
That’s because Gatekeeper, the security feature in OS X Mountain Lion, the company’s ninth and current operating platform for Mac desktops, operates much like the iOS platform that powers the ubiquitous iPhone. Anyone who has an iPhone knows that you can only download apps that are approved by, and sold through, the iTunes App Store. The positive spin on this is that all apps must be approved and their creators vetted by Apple, so users have the comfort of knowing that there is a negligible chance that a malicious app has snuck through that review protocol and their iPhones operate programs free of harmful malware and Trojans. The negative take is that this is how Apple locks people into the company’s hardware-software ecosystem, ensuring that the company benefits financially from users’ dependence on their apps.
Jump back to Mountain Lion’s Gatekeeper system, which has three settings that users can choose to employ: They can allow software and apps from any source to run on their system; they can allow apps from the App Store and/or approved by Apple developers to run on it; or they can allow only apps and software from the official Mac App store to run. Seems pretty straightforward – three simple, easy-to-understand options. But the (potential) devil is in that third option.
By allowing their Mac to only run Apple software and apps, users know their system is operating non-malicious, Apple-approved programs, just as they do with their iPhone. But skeptics fear that this third option is a precursor of a future operating system that discards any user choice and allows only Apple software to run on its hardware. As Apple continues to increase its already impressive market presence ($46 billion earned in the first fiscal quarter of 2012), such a system would lock users into the Apple hardware-software ecosystem and, presumably, make Apple even more profitable.
It must be said that Apple has given no outward indication that it is moving in this direction. It must also be said that Apple guards its future plans more closely than the CIA protects state secrets, so rumor and conjecture are the only things that industry analysts have to go on when predicting the company’s future.
Gatekeeper may not point to the future of Apple hardware-software interoperability, but if it does users could eventually be forced to choose between security and freedom when they consider buying Apple products.