I had a hand to play in IntelligenceSquared's written debate on "The iPad is a temptation we should resist". The crux of the case for, the most powerful argument, is Zittrain's that Apple is destroying everything that made the Web good: open standards, a collegiate approach to solving problems, the ability for any and all to take risks, a realm of radical under-regulation...
As I've written, I have great philosophical sympathy with all JZ's political instincts, but I have to say I haven't – that is until the past couple of days – been really convinced that Steve Jobs' strategy with the iPhone and iPad are a real threat to all of that. But with the release of the 4.0 version of the iPhone operating system, Jobs has come clean with the audacity and ambition of the strategy. If it works, we're in a bit of trouble.
There's a great piece on TechCrunch with the details. Essentially, Jobs thinks he is now in a position to force developers to his platform and threfore his hardware and services because that is where most users are. If he's right, he will, as the Steven Johnson in the NYT puts it, have turned "a walled garden into a rainforest." Jobs will achieve his ambition of turning Apple into Microsoft Mark 2 and we – consumers, developers, publishers – will all have a monopoly problem on our hands, just as we eventually did with Microsoft.
Now the trouble with monopolies in the tech world is that they last too long and do too much damage before the usual anti-monopoly laws have time to take effect. I think it was clear to all serious PC users that Microsoft was abusing its muscle over Windows 3.1 in a way that detracted from innovation from the time it launched office and buried the far superior Lotus, DB3 and WordPerfect products. I think that was about 1992. Anti-trust did not catch up until Microsoft nearly sank the web with Internet Explorer 10 years later. (Thank goodness for Linux and GNU, the radically free and open OS, not because it was free to download, but because the code was open to tinkering). There is no doubt it was the challenge of GNU/Linux that made the web as open as it has been and that convinced Jobs to move his desktop/laptop operating system over to the equally tinkerable Unix BSD.
Like many others, I went from Acorn/BBC to Dos to giving up Windows for Linux, to giving up Linux for Mac's OS X. Each of these mass moves by users and developers were moves towards openness and were in reaction to technology that was bad in special sorts of ways. The technology made you do very unnatural things because they were in a vendors' broader commercial interest. (Not true of Ubuntu, of course .. the trouble there was existential: could I really justify abandoning myself to the pleasures ot tinkering so many hours per week?) Microsoft ended up from its sheer size being the worst offender: it wanted you to shape your behavior to its wider business model. Could you decide to integrate Word with Lotus rather than Excel? No. Could you mash up DB3 with Excel rather than Access? No. In all these cases, Microsoft was using its position in charge of the operating system to extract micro-payments in applications. That eventually bought Gates the application market, but we had to suffer 10 years of bad software and work-arounds while he built up his fortune.
(I am reminded of a story my friend Olivier tells. His father was a vet in a rural part of France. As business prospered, he ended up being the first owner of a comfortable Mercedes in the locale. When he drove to remote farms to help a birthing cow, a farmer would typically kick a tyre and say: "nice tyre ... that one is mine, isn't it?" I feel the same way to Gates' fortune: it was built on so much wasted time and efficiency from me and millions like me that I feel some part of it is ours ...)
The same is threatening to happen with Jobs and mobile/touch computing.The new license term that forces developers to use Apple's own development platform to develop Apps is clearly aimed at stopping companies like Adobe, with their Flash language, from making it easy to develop cross platform applications. This is the same kind of tax in time and efficiency, all leading to a real lack of competition in the mobile computing space, that we endured under Gates.
Anti-trust should be there to deal with the problem - and eventually, Apple is sure to be reined in by it if it keeps going along this route. But great damage will already have been done.
So what should we do? I'm a mac fanboy, so it saddens me to say that as conumers, we should move to Android, the up-and-coming second player in mobile/touch computing. Android itself is built by Google. It is tinkerable like BSD. Google is allowing anyone's hardware to run it. But most important, it stands a chance of spoiling Jobs' game. As long as it gathers enough end users, Jobs will not be able to dominate mobile/touch computing by forcing the developers onto his platform. We should do what we can to save this engineer, CEO and designer of genius from his destructive will to displace Bill Gates.
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