Let’s review concepts: A closed platform, for the purposes of our conversation, is one in which a product developer limits the ability of a user/owner of that product to do literally anything and everything the owner might wish to. If an iPhone was a house, and you bought that house, there are certain rooms that you as the owner are forbade to enter, to peek at, to even acknowledge the existence of. Theoretically only the developer of the property has full access, and what’s more – the developer can modify these limitations over time, such that, theoretically, a door that was open to you on prior occasion no longer is. And there is nothing you can do about that – if you try to go in to that room again, you’d be breaking the law according to that fine print you never bothered to read but still signed-off on.
It’s daunting, and the tech community has decried both the concept and plenty of companies for “closed” platform practices over the years. Apple seems to illicit fairly irrational criticisms on the topic given the widespread practice, but much in the way they also seem to attract an irrational cult like following amongst another subset of users. Regardless, closed platforms are found everywhere in the modern information society, and the respective merits of open-vs-closed are ever increasing and accordingly increasingly debated. Most recently the topic of open information as it pertains to biological engineering and synthetic biology is being discussed.
I’d take the house analogy a bit further, but I can’t, and I’ll explain why: It’s not well suited. While in theory, once you’ve bought a house, it’s yours to explore and do-what-you-will-with, the reality is that its not so simple. You can’t do whatever you want because almost anywhere you might have bought a house in the developing world, municipalities, localities – or more broadly “society” – places limits on what you can do. You can’t replace your concrete frame with straw, for example, if you live in forest-fire prone area, because if you did, then your house would become a potential threat to other houses on the block. It’s not up to code. In a lot of areas, people choose to live in communities and neighborhoods where the rules are set not just by local government and block associations, but by private companies. Should you choose to live in a private gated community, you may not be allowed to not mow your lawn.
In drawing arguments against the closed nature of the iPhone OS, many of the open-and-angry-mob favor analogies that feature simpler products with arguably more frustrating scenarios. Cory Doctorow, for example, compares an iPhone to a dishwasher in a recent Publishers Weekly article. If you buy a dishwasher, the logic goes, you can do anything you want to it (assuming it’s inventive and positive of course). Hook the hot water to the cold water inlet, steam a fish, do whatever! It’s yours. On an iPhone, on the other hand, not only are you not free to do either of these things, it would actually be illegal to even try (in my dream life, perhaps abandoned on a tropical island in an unknown parallel universe, the survival of myself and my group of friends will be depend on our ability to sufficiently cook a fish we managed to capture, and I will proudly pull out my iPhone and pronounce: “There’s an app for that, and I wrote it”).
Joking aside, it’s persuasive, and it makes an appeal to our senses both as owners/consumers as well the “can-do” spirit of innovation, tinkering, and hacking that really has done much to elevate minds and teach the tinkerer in years past. “I was young, I took things apart, pity the kids today who aren’t allowed – how will they learn anything?” Goes the standard line of reasoning.
It’s easy to follow the chain of logic that says if I buy it I own it. As a concept, it’s something we must continue to come back to and examine. But the idea that there is no place for closed platforms, or, as has so often been the case in technical criticisms of the iPhone, simply pointing out all the flaws (and there are many) of closed systems without mentioning the benefits does the consumer a disservice and doesn’t progress the ideal of an “open” debate on the topic.
In a moment I’ll go into a little more detail regarding Apple’s stated reasons for maintaing a closed and tightly controlled platform, as well as my speculations on the unmentioned reasons – but in the meantime I also want do introduce what I consider a fairly crucial point, which is the difference between a “platform” and the content that exists within the context of that platform.
For our purposes, looking at the iPhone OS (and, if I haven’t explicitly stated it yet in this post, any devices that run it to include iPod, iPhone, and iPad), the platform consists of both the Apple supplied hardware and software (such as built in apps… the calculator, stock ticker, anything you’d get out of a factory box before you’d set hands on the virtual keyboard). The platform manifests the moving parts of the device, more specifically, executable code, manipulating the screen to display things, reading information from the GPS, anything that the device “does” – this is all being drawn of course, from computer code – something any user is aware that is happening but not really vested in (hopefully).
I bother you with this detail only, really, to demonstrate the difference between this – the platform – and the media that lives in it.
The media that lives in these devices is not part of the platform. It is the songs, the e-mail, the web pages that you, the user, are exercising on the device. Listening to a song on an iPod is using elements of the platform (iTunes) to play media (your selected song), but it’s your media, not Apple’s, that comes through your ears. Books, movies, text messages – this is all yours – and you can do what you want with it – Apple neither claims nor has any discretion here.
As we’ve identified, the closed nature of Apple’s platform has earned them the ire of many a blogger. You bought it! It’s yours! Do what you want with it, and a big F-U to Apple for trying to tell you otherwise. “A Benevolent Dictatorship”, it’s been termed, Apple’s iPhone ecosystem.
The trouble of course is that this completely glosses over the fact that you are free to consume media of whatever kind from whatever source you want on the device – as long as it’s content, not executable code you’re trying to get at. Apple’s never issued so much as a single adjective to describe “content” that isn’t allowed on the device. And do yo know why? Because it’s not possible. Because they don’t actually control the content on the device. They control the platform. The platform is closed, and the media is an altogether different question.
I’d challenge critics to demonstrate a scenario in which they were, solely by virtue of Apple’s closed platform, prevented and prohibited from reading, viewing, or listening to a particular work or instance of media that is not published in an otherwise proprietary format (ie, Flash – and in this case its moot as I’m referring to concepts not specific implementations or representations of media – ie, a flash video of Tank Man vs a JPG of Tank Man). I’m not talking about apps. I’m talking about words and pictures. Because you can access any webpage through a web browser, you can listen to any MP3 in iTunes, you can read any ePub in Books, Apple isn’t limiting anything when it comes to content on your device. So let’s try and not obscure this reality.
Apps are a different story. These are executable bits of code – they can make the phone do different things, increasing it’s usefulness and capabilities exponentially. It’s interesting to note that apps were never an initial part of the platform (you took what Apple gave you and you liked it), but users called for it and Apple eventually provided a way for third parties to develop apps that would be granted more-or-less the same treatment as Apple’s own authored apps on any given iPhone. Users and developers were overjoyed, until they came to realize that, despite allowing them in, Apple was not going to let them run amuck.
Apple maintains a fairly rigorous oversight program for any and all apps that are sold on the app-store, indeed over any app that can be run on iPhone at all, and this is where the contention arises. Any app that is written must be digitally signed by it’s developer (meaning there is no such thing as anonymously written software floating around and hopping from iPhone to iPhone), and both the programmatic integrity and the fixed content of the application must meet with Apple’s approval before it will be sold. While I’m not at liberty to discuss the specifics of what is and isn’t deemed objectionable and thereby refused distribution (through the sole channel of sales, the app store) by Apple, suffice to say that there are plenty of websites out there that, if compiled and submitted to Apple, would not be approved as apps. I’m ok with that, because again, nobody is telling me I can’t visit those websites, that I can’t consume whatever information I choose, on my device.
I do have serious concerns about Apple’s position as gatekeeper in what has become one of the biggest distribution channels of software in recent years. I’m generally an advocate of openness myself, as a matter of fact. I voiced some of these concerns in a recent letter to Steve Jobs, who was kind enough to respond and address them.
Might it be convenient to have apps for every bit of information I consume in my life? It would be. If Apple’s restrictions went away it would also spur some innovation, certainly, lowering the barrier for entry (frankly, it’s probably low enough already, but that’s a topic for another day) introducing the exciting world of app development to anyone with a passing curiosity. But if Apple is the gatekeeper when it comes to apps, they’ve left the doors wide open when it comes to content. When the fervor and frenzy over Apple’s “censorship” is left to distill a bit, I’m left wondering exactly what it is people are so furious about – not being able to look at porn, or not being able to look at porn that is programmed in Objective-C and loads a bit faster than a web page and can draw from location services? Is this simply a convoluted case of ends versus means?
In many ways, a closed platform offers advantages that we’re vaguely aware of, but only because of the fact they’re closed to begin with. As someone who’s seen a fair share of friends and clients PCs infected with malware and viruses, to me, the trade off of closed-for-safe is one that I’m willing to make, for now. One can argue that closed systems are not as safe as open in principle, but this doesn’t change the obvious fact that malware isn’t circulating on (unmodified) iPhones – and that it is both on modified iPhones (ie, the only iPhones getting viruses are precisely those which have been modified and “opened” from Apple’s closed environment) and pretty much every other “open” OS out there. For anyone who has spent two-or-three days trying to rid a Windows installation of some bogus anti-virus or other malware, the notion that if the code were signed, one could literally trace it back and shoot the author in the head, doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.
To return back to my original house analogy, perhaps it isn’t so poorly conceived after all. These devices are more like houses than dishwashers. They communicate with other devices, they spread bits of information (for better or worse), they have implications beyond whats in the box and what a single user/owner is capable of doing or more importantly thinks they are capable of doing. A badly written app is not just capable but likely to drain a user’s battery, to undermine the user’s ideas of the hardware and adversely affect perception of Apple’s product and platform, and finally, of wrecking havoc on the networks of cell carriers (not that I have much sympathy, but I understand the demands and constraints). The threats are real, and given how new it is, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to pursue the path that Apple is taking when it comes to this platform. On a hardware level, as an information appliance, there is a higher expectation of performance. Apple is preparing the world for a device that doesn’t lock up or hang like a computer, that remains responsive and responsible in the environment it’s being utilized in. This requires some trade-offs from the way things have been done in the past – and, by the way, it’s hardly a new concept.
On the software front, leading computer scientists and brain trusts have been predicting the rise of a more closed “authenticated” information web living in parallel to the open web as we know it for years. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the App store is it (yet), but it’s a very logical progression for information technology to take, and one that’s widely been seen as coming. I’m not heralding it in, I’m only suggesting that this is nothing new.
And now the bottom line: If I decide it’s not for me, I can switch. I can take my MP3s and ePubs and my e-mail and iCal events, and I can haul them off to an Android phone – Apple is not the only game in town, they just happen to be the best, for right now. I can’t take my apps, but of course the inverse is true coming from any other platform to iPhone. If I’m unwilling to give up some of the things I love about my iPhone but want to free myself, despite much belly-aching to the contrary, I could jailbreak my phone. Is it forbidden? Yes. Has Apple hauled anyone to court over it? Have they taken any definitive action against anyone for “breaking” the rules? Not really, beyond temporarily disabling the functionality of some of these phones (and only at the time that user of a jail-broken phone actually attempted to place legitimate Apple software updates on top of their hacked OS).
Open platforms offer real-world advantages – flexibility, robust security due to the fact anyone examine the underlying mechanisms and point out flaws, and the warm tingly feeling that, in choosing open-platforms, we’re contributing to an ideal of a world of transparency and “openness”. This makes a lot of programmers feel good in a way that, for average people, looking at a picture of a puppy might. But if we critically observe the state of computers and platforms as they exist today, there are indisputable trends: Closed platforms tend to be highly-polished and consumer-detail oriented, open platforms are often powerful and flexible, but less intuitive, and less polished and consistent when it comes to interface and “usability”. This is an obvious reflection of the variance in working and engineering methods in open versus closed development. Apple, for example, is known to use extremely small and tight-knit groups of engineers on specific products, which results in attention to detail and consistency across a small set of features. An alternative open approach, Google’s Android, for example, reflects a broader array of features, but lacking the same precision and consistency across all that’s being offered.
On a final note, I think the overwhelming sentiment that somehow Google can do no wrong, that its commitment and values are rooted in some corporate slogan of “Don’t be evil” is flat-out wrong. I think as a company they’ve made and continue to make valuable contributions to society and computer science. But, giving away software away for free and positioning it as an “Open” alternative to Apple’s iPhone OS is well-and-dandy, but for the fact we all know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Google gives away services and products based on its desire to continue to be the most profitable company in the world…not something it achieves by giving products away, rather by giving products away and then collecting any and every bit of information about the people who’ve decided to use it, so as to deconstruct their habits and motivations and more effectively advertise to them. It’s not evil, but it sort of undercuts those feelings of gooey goodness that you might have had when you opted for an “open” platform over Apple’s walled garden.
One can argue that an iPhone is too expensive, it costs too much money. When you choose an Android phone, or even to use Gmail, you don’t pay cash. But you do pay, and you really never stop paying for it, if you place a value on the privacy of your personal information. This can’t be quantified quite as easily, but my opinion is that the price might very well be a bit high, for me.