Last week, we covered Cory Doctorow’s rant against the closed nature of the iPad. Lately, a number of responses have emerged to Doctorow and others who hold similar opinions: “You may not like it, but it’s progress.”
Steven Johnson, author of a forthcoming book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, has an essay in the New York Times in which he considers the matter.
Johnson points out the strange contradiction that, in a world where open development platforms are regarded to be the best “generative” environment for diversity and innovation, the closed iPhone/iPad platform has turned out to be one of the most innovative platforms ever.
Those of us who have championed open platforms cannot ignore these facts. It’s conceivable that, had Apple loosened the restrictions surrounding the App Store, the iPhone ecosystem would have been even more innovative, even more democratic. But I suspect that this view is too simplistic. The more complicated reality is that the closed architecture of the iPhone platform has contributed to its generativity in important ways.
In particular, Johnson points to the simplicity and ease of purchasing having a single authorized chokepoint brings: consumers don’t have to worry about typing their credit card information multiple places on that tiny little thumb keyboard. It makes impulse buying easy and safe. (Amazon has done the same thing with its Kindle, which I often consider to be the most brilliant thing about the platform even as I continue to detest some of Amazon’s other behavior.)
And it’s easier on developers, too, not to have to make sure their software works on hundreds of different software configurations. (This last has long been cited as an advantage of developing for Macintoshes, with their tight hardware control, in general.)
Johnson still thinks that Apple could benefit by opening a “side door” to allow power users to bypass the walled garden. Still, given Steve Jobs’s comment about not wanting pornographic app stores on the iPhone during the OS 4.0 question-and-answer session, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen unless Apple thinks it can gain a competitive advantage.
Author Nicholas Carr has an entry on the Rough Type blog in which he compares Doctorow and others like him to the Luddites. Not “luddite” in the sense in which it normally applies today, one who fears technology, but the original followers of Ned Ludd who objected to the advent of mechanical looms.
If Ned Ludd had been a blogger, he would have written a post similar to Doctorow’s about those newfangled locked-down mechanical looms that distance the weaver from the machine’s workings, requiring the weaver to follow the programs devised by the looms’ manufacturer. The design of the mechanical loom, Ned would have told us, exhibits a palpable contempt for the user. It takes the generativity out of weaving.
And Ned would have been right.
Carr writes that, much as he sympathizes with Doctorow’s views, technological advancement has a long history of progressing from relatively open systems down the pathway to closed systems. It used to be that all radios, not just ham rigs, were transmitters as well as receivers, and early phonographs were recorders, too.
Matt Asay, Chief Operating Officer of Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu Linux), has an editorial on CNet citing Carr’s post, and suggesting that one way around locked-down platforms is to combine them with more open cloud services, so that our data does not end up locked in those closed devices. He concludes
We may really want that iPad, in other words, but we’d better bet on open clouds to complement them. Or open devices to hook up with closed clouds. One or the other needs to be open. Closed-in-part may be progress, but closed-in-full is not.
All this talk about suspicion of progress reminds me of a famous quote from the late Douglas Adams about the nature of progress and inventions:
1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.
It also makes me wonder whether a similar way of thinking might apply to e-book formats. As I mentioned earlier, Amazon has done something very similar with its Kindle, locking down the format (including locking out the prior Mobipocket format on which the Kindle format was built), and they’ve grabbed the lion’s share of the American e-book market, just as Apple has grabbed the lion’s share of the mp3 player and smartphone markets.
The situations may not be perfect analogues, however, given that there’s a lot less difference between a Kindle e-book and a competing format than there is between an iPhone and an Android phone. There are only so many different ways to display words in readable formats, after all.