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.