What Do You Own? ‘iSlate’ and Apple’s Direction

You may think you own the device you bought last week from a retailer. What you own, increasingly, is only the hardware; what you don’t own is the right to use it the way you want to use it, even for entirely legal purposes.

Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard law professor and author of The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It, has described a potential future in which the very qualities that have made personal computing and the Internet so valuable — namely their openness to add-on innovation — are in danger. We are on the verge of a major test of his predictions: the upcoming introduction of Apple’s tablet computer.

Where the personal computer and early Internet were a wide-open collection of technologies, on which anyone could build software and services, governments, the technology and media industries have increasingly wanted to clamp down on your freedoms. Apple has been increasingly clear that it intends to be one of the most insistent control freaks, and the “iSlate” or whatever it’s going to be called may well announce the company’s long-term vision — and not in a way we should want it to go.

The iPhone was Apple’s first statement along these lines, and it was a big switch from what had come before. With the Macintosh computer, Apple built an ecosystem for software developers. Anyone could write for the Mac, and still can, just as they can for Windows and Linux and other computer operating systems.

With the iPhone, Apple took its experience with the iTunes Music Store and created an iPhone applications software retailing system. But to reach iPhone users, developers had to get Apple’s permission to be listed in the store. Lots of them have, plainly, as the number of applications is said to be above 100,000; but there are well-documented horror stories featuring Apple’s refusal, on often mysterious or capricious grounds, to allow specific applications to be sold or even given away.

You can still create what you want on the Web, and iPhone users can still find it via the device’s Safari brower — sorry, no other browsers allowed — but if you want them to experience your work in any way that uses the hardware’s capabilities to their fullest, you need Apple’s permission. And if you get it and charge for your application, or for any services you provide via your application, Apple insists on taking a cut of the money.

I have an older iPhone. I used hackers’ software to jailbreak and unlock it, and used it on T-Mobile’s network. But when the “3G” iPhone came out, using AT&T’s network that’s incompatible with T-Mobile’s faster one, I moved to Android. I still prefer the iPhone experience in many ways, but the lack of compatibility and Apple’s constant breaking of the jailbreak software made it crazy to continue.

So here’s the question. I don’t doubt that Apple, an absolute master of user experience, is about to sell a superb multimedia tablet computer that could be as pathbreaking in its genre as the iPhone was in its space.

Many media companies are talking with Apple about selling their content through the Apple tablet. Will they — and software developers — need Apple’s permission to make the best use of the hardware?

In other words, will the Apple tablet software model be the iPhone-style, control-freak system, or will it be the open-to-all Mac platform on a more portable device? Or to put it still another way, is the “you bought it but we control it” mentality moving up into what had been a relatively protected, i.e. open, part of the communications foodchain?

If Apple does the former and gets away with it, you can be sure others in the consumer-electronics arena will move in the same direction. Not all, thank goodness, but some major ones will try to make your decisions for you.

One that already does is Amazon. The Kindle is the most popular e-reader by far. I own one (and I own some Amazon stock), but I am extremely unhappy at Amazon’s hard-nosed insistence that it can control your Kindle. The company was appropriately embarrassed (and had to pay out a court settlement) for remotely deleting several books by George Orwell — oh, the irony — from the Kindles of people who’s purchased the editions from what turned out to be a publisher that was unauthorized to sell them. While Amazon apologized, it didn’t say what would happen if some judge or government agency ordered it to remove books or other content from the devices in the future.

This is not just about your right to read and use media as you wish. It is also about the way you will be able to make available what you create in the future. If you believe in freedom of speech, you should be deeply alarmed by the trends we’re seeing.

And if media companies think the Apple tablet is their salvation, they should consider what they may be signing up for. Turning their futures over to Apple doesn’t strike me as a solution to anything.

18 thoughts on “What Do You Own? ‘iSlate’ and Apple’s Direction”

  1. The space is open. Netbooks and tablets are nearly as lame as .mp3 players were before the iPod came along, and as smartphones were before the iPhone came along. (For evidence of the former, check the netbook report in the current Consumer Reports.) Meaning that there’s a job for Apple to do here. (And you can betcha they’ll be as verticalized and controlling as ever.

    Then there’s the problem with collecting for charities (or public broadcasting, for example). Apple won’t allow that, either. Bad news for nonprofits.

    Ya gotta wonder how long (and well) they can keep up the walled gardening. At some point, one would think, they’ll need to operate in the general marketplace. You know, like they do with Mac software.

    1. Doc, Absolutely agree on the space being open. I’m pretty sure that Apple will move into it with the iPod equivalent, too. But you can get songs in other ways than just iTunes, and songs you buy on iTunes (after converting) will run elsewhere. Weird that the music industry let itself be turned into an Apple subsidiary, though…

      I’m a big fan of the Mac, as anyone who knows me can tell. But the day Apple even hints at pulling this kind of thing with the Mac is the day I move back to Windows or to Linux.

      1. You know, since we are all living in glass houses, I think Linux Rocks.
        Sometimes I wonder at the blind support of self sacrifice…
        But most religions teach self sacrifice is best for everyone…

        People will abandon digital and go back to reality…
        Nothing beats the resolution of reality…
        Maybe the new line of monitors come close… but…

        We pay these clowns to screw ourselves…

        Oh yea, we were talking computers… sorry…

  2. I was arguing with my roommate about this a few weeks ago. I was telling him about the trend towards closed devices like the iPhone and the Kindle, and how the trend could become more dangerous if it became the norm in the netbook world (I was worried about Google’s Chrome OS and its lack of support for storing local files; the so-called iSlate is another example).

    He pointed out that worried gadgeteers don’t HAVE to use the iPhone. They can use other plaforms, like Android, where the hardware quality/sexiness (e.g, Droid) and the app selection are starting to compete with the iPhone. Wouldn’t this be a case of the market deciding what’s best?

    I’m still worried about the trend towards closed-ness, but I’m curious what you think–should we be ok with “letting the market decide”?

  3. While I mostly agree (I’m geeky after all) I’m extremely happy the iPhone/iPod-Touch are closed and controlled. I’ve provided tech support for family/friends for years and can’t imagine doing it for iPods/iPhones/slates also. They are consumer devices perfect for the vast non-techie majority. For us geeks, we can always jail-break or whatever but I for one will not be jail-breaking for family/friends.
    We’re moving (and the tech along with it) into a new era. It’s for the masses and less for us tech-oriented geeks.
    I’ve gotten over it.

  4. “…is about to sell a superb multimedia tablet computer that could be as pathbreaking in its genre as the iPhone was in its space.”

    As I read this line I wondered — if Apple did not exert control over the platform the way they do, and if the were not in a position to profit from the platform, would we see the next great thing they might do? If they hadn’t controlled the iPhone the way they did, would it have been as fantastic and far-reaching?

    Patents impose limitations, but allow investments to be made for research and innovation that benefits everyone eventually. (Although they have been extended to cover things that maybe should be covered differently.) Yet, we don’t have people railing against Mercedes or BMW for automobile innovations, or Boeing or Lockheed for aircraft innovations, And in general, we recognize there is something to the quality of the design and integration of those platforms.

    Reducing Apple products to simply a hardware device that anyone can do anything to would eventually reduce them to the level of a clone-maker fighting for marginal profits by shaving quality. I think we’d all lose something there more than what might be gained by those who want the ability to tinker.

    There’s a balance, and advocates for making everything free and available sometimes overlook that innovation and creativity sometimes require resources and control to achieve. We didn’t get Avatar by letting everyone show up at the theater with their own film clips. We don’t get a stirring rendition of a symphony by letting everyone show up and play notes on whatever they brought. And we don’t get the wonder of new Apple platforms by ensuring that anyone who can write code is able to do so for every computer on the market.

    1. Gene, your logic puzzles me.

      I’m not arguing for massive licensing the Mac OS or iPhone OS (though I’d pay a premium for a ThinkPad running OS X; that would be the best hardware-software combo, bar none). I’m not arguing at all for “making everything free and available” in the way you suggested.

      But we do get the wonder of new platforms specifically because they’re open to innovation within their ecosystems, innovation not requiring permission of the platform creator. We got the wonder of OS X in large part because it was open as a platform; no one needed Apple’s permission to write apps for OS X, and it would have failed had Apple tried to pull this stunt with the traditional personal computer. Apple never tried to take a cut of every software developer’s revenue with OS X; the developers would have just stuck with Windows.

      The second Apple found a market it could dominate, however, it moved from semi-control-freakish behavior to absolute control-freakery. I remember someone telling me a few years ago that the world was lucky Steve Jobs hadn’t ended up with the Windows monopoly, because he’d be 10x worse as a monopolist in his behavior. Gates, at least, never told Windows developers they had to get Microsoft’s permission to innovate, much less fork over a cut of the action.

      Again, I’m unlikely to buy the Apple tablet if it goes in the direction I fear, because there’s still some actual competition just as there is in mobile phones. What worries me more is the trend. It’s not a positive one when the dominant player in any marketplace starts pushing that dominance into new areas that were once more open to innovation without permission.

    2. Gene, I agree with you completely.

      Apple’s iPhone ingenuity and innovation has had an energizing effect on the entire industry, and to wring hands over what they will or won’t do in the future, especially in light of Nexus having just been released, and other products aspiring to give consumers the same user benefits iPhone inspired, seems moot.

      I also agree with Miguel. Why speculate doom and gloom distribution scenarios on a possible groundbreaking product that hasn’t even been released yet?

      I appreciate that you want to want to get us all thinking about protecting the openness and creativity of the future, Dan, but I sincerely hope whatever device I’m using to communicate and participate in the future conversations, and their distribution systems, will be as savvy and forward-thinking and well-designed as what Apple has given us so far.

  5. I really think Proffesor Zittrain us brilliant. I really do. I try to read all he writes and see all the videos he appears on, but this article is completely out of line.

    To make predictions about a product that not only has not been shipped, but not even announced is a complete guess.

    It is not fair to predict how Apple’s tablet software and software distribution model will be like after seeing how it is being distributed on the iPhone. I mean, if that was correct, we could asume that Mac software would be distributed the same way, but it does not seem like it will be happening anytime soon.

    I would suggest to erase this post and wait until an Apple tablet is unveiled, not even a minute before.

    P.S.: This was posted using an iPhone.

  6. My guess would be that they’ll keep the walled garden going for as long as they’re able to deliver on products that offer a demonstrably better user experience, and consequently that they can make a huge profit doing so. The solution here is not to rail against Apple’s self-referential (and admittedly superior in many ways) platform, but to encourage people to make open tools better. I have yet to see any free software that even comes close to rivaling Apple’s in terms of appearance or usability (which, frankly, for a desktop computer, is _everything_). Apple cares about this and is able to execute on it, and free software advocates either don’t or can’t. Fund an open software platform and staff it with people who will deliver as consistent and usable a platform, and you’ll crush Apple’s hegemony.

    As I’ve said on many occasions, I’d be ecstatic if someone released a computer so great it made me hate my Macs. I don’t see it happening any time soon.

    (Also, incidentally, I think there’s no way Steve Jobs is releasing a product called “Is Late”.)

  7. The computing and consumer electronics industries are full of both open and closed platforms, and there seems to be room for both in the digital ecosystem.

    Video game machines such as the XBox, Wii, and PS3 are extremely popular, and all are closed platforms. AOL, a “walled garden” online services provider, did extremely well in the days of dialup, and would have continued to be a popular ISP were it not for the courts’ reversal of the 1996 Telecomm Act and the Brand X decision (which basically prevented it from using the telephone and cable companies’ infrastructure as it had used the phone system in the past). The iPod and iPhone are great successes. Other devices — from handheld GPS units to digital cameras — likewise run only the software provided by their makers. This doesn’t make them undesirable, and consumers buy them knowing full well that the manufacturer has control of what will run on them.

    “Open” platforms can run anything, by anybody. But they tend to have more uneven quality, be more difficult to use, and be more subject to hijacking by malicious parties (e.g. viruses on PCs).

    Eye says, ya pays yer money and ya takes yer choicek. ;-)

  8. Consumers — personally or for business — have choices. I loved the Macintosh and used it for 11 years, but gave it up in 1995 because all of the new software was being built for Windows. Now, a lot of new software is being built for new platforms (Linux, Google’s Android, and so forth).

    Buyers should buy what suits them best. I don’t own an iPhone (aothough I wanted one) because I won’t ever have AT&T as my wireless carrier. They have useless customer service. Now that I’ve waited this long, I suspect my next smartphone is going to be an Android from Verizon. I don’t need 100,000 applications; I bet I cn make do with 10,000+.

    Innovation requires the ability to try and add new things. Closed systems make that hard if not impossible to do. I love all the new stuff and I can’t wait to see whether I’ll like the new smartphones and smartbooks better than the netbooks I increasingly carry for convenience (one even runs Linux, Doc!) but what I’ll really like is all the choices.

    We’re busy converting all the now less interesting laptops and extra netbooks into net-surfing computers for all the rooms in our condo. A little wireless and a broadband connection goes a long way at making this cheap and interesting.

  9. Free software movement started in 1983 by Richard Stallman. Freedom and community are the moral goals of software freedom. Remember when GIFs wanted a $5000 license fee? I don’t think this is a trend I think this is considered “business as usual”. I have been alarmed about it for a long time.

  10. There are two sides (at least) to a distribution bottleneck: quality control, which is in the user’s interest; and content control, which, I dare say, is not. Managing quality (and The Brand) can be used as a misleading justification for lack of neutrality. It’s important that we not lose sight of the multiple sides of the bottleneck.

    We’ll see what the tablet does. But when the drawbridge operator charges too high a toll or refuses to let “undesirables” cross at any price, start keeping an eye out for bathyscaphes and airships and trebuchets.

  11. Apple sells UX. That is what they do and I will go out on a limb and say they do it better than anyone else does or ever has in my memory. When you pay up for Apple’s products you’re paying for the UX.

    How they choose to manage that is for the market to decide and if you look at their stock price, they marketshare numbers and any other metric the market has responded with an overwhelming thumbs up.

    You can’t argue with success.

    1. When I buy a Mac I’m paying for the user experience — which I agree they do better than anyone — AND the ability to tweak it to my own liking. Why is that not an acceptable approach on the iPhone? Because Apple can get away with being control-freakish there, in a method that is great for the company’s profits but not, in the long run, for users.

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