My last post about the iPad, intellectual property, and the right to exclude was spurred by a Cory Doctorow post. I’ve been looking around at some other recent writing about the iPad, iPhone, iTunes, App Store, and other elements of what I’ll call the iCosystem: the hardware, software, and content delivery networks overseen by Apple. And while a lot of what I’ve read has been favorable to the company, some of the writing by some prominent folk has not. In fact, I came across a mix of vitriol, hyperbole, contempt, and alarmism that I at first found bizarre.
Here’s vitriol and hyperbole, in a post by Tim Bray about going to work for Google:
The iPhone vision of the mobile Internet’s future omits controversy, sex, and freedom, but includes strict limits on who can know what and who can say what. It’s a sterile Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers. The people who create the apps serve at the landlord’s pleasure and fear his anger.
I hate it.
I hate it even though the iPhone hardware and software are great, because freedom’s not just another word for anything, nor is it an optional ingredient.
Here’s contempt from the Doctorow post:
The model of interaction with the iPad is to be a “consumer,” what William Gibson memorably described as “something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth… no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote.”
And here’s alarmism (and some more hyberbole), from a Financial Times editorial by Jonathan Zittrain
Mr Jobs ushered in the personal computer era and now he is trying to usher it out. We should focus on preserving our freedoms, even as the devices we acquire become more attractive and easier to use.
Seriously, isn’t all this a bit over the top? The iCosystem puts our freedom at risk because applications have to go through Apple’s review process before they can be loaded onto devices? Or because I can’t use my iPad to endlessly copy and forward books I buy from Amazon and comics I buy from Marvel (in other words, I can’t participate in the theft of intellectual property?)?
As I and many others have pointed out, the iCosystem’s devices all come equipped with fully-functional Web browsers (albeit without Flash support), and so make all the Web’s content available. Users also have access to browsers made by other organizations. So it’s very hard for me to see how Apple is trying to cut its users off from the Web, or drive a wedge between the Web and the iCosystem.
It’s true that the App approval process is a black box, and that some decisions seem a bit silly. For example, Apple recently required graphic artists to remove images of topless women from a comic version of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’d prefer the iCosystem to include content that goes beyond a PG-13 rating. But I also strongly prefer it to be free of viruses, Trojan Horses, and other forms of malware. It is, thanks to its stringent review policies. So on balance, I’m glad they’re in place. They make the device more useful to me overall, not less.
The best reason I can come up with for the over-the-top reactions to the iCosystem is that it violates important parts of the modern geek ethos. Here’s my inelegant attempt to summarize this ethos without caricaturing it:
We like to hack things – to take them apart to understand how they work, recombine their elements, improve them, and add new ones, some of which we’ve built from scratch. We hack all kinds of things — computers, cars, food, networks, governments, music, and so on.
We hack some things that we don’t own (like open-source software) and many things we do. Once we buy something we consider it ours to hack, and we don’t need or seek anyone’s permission to do so. Nobody can dictate where, how, or what we hack, particularly when we’re not breaking any laws.
Our work is profoundly beneficial; it’s a big source of creative destruction in the economy and society. We turn out innovations much better and faster than big sleepy incumbents do, and we also keep them on their feet. They might not like us, but they can’t stop us; we’ll either hack their wares or turn out better ones. So we don’t need to play nice with them, and don’t have any interest in doing so.
Entities that welcome us are, in the not-too-long-run, going to outperform those that don’t, because we bring so much energy and generate so much innovation.
The sustained and rampant success of the iCosystem directly challenges core aspects of this ethos. It calls into question the idea that maximum innovation results from maximum autonomy, which has become almost an article of faith in some quarters.
Millions of users and the iCosystem are teaming up to behave in ways that upset some geeks’ ideas about the way the world works, or how it should. Hyperbole, vitriol, contempt, and alarmism are all-to-common reactions when this happens. We’d be better served by thoughtful reconsideration of how technology-based innovation occurs, and how it can best be encouraged.
I hope the vitriol and alarmism around the iCosystem dies down, because it’s not doing much good. Maybe Barry Goldwater was right that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. But crying wolf surely is.
What do you think? Am I missing something important and nefarious about the iCosystem? Or are you with me in thinking that it fosters innovation rather than stifling it? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.