Mandarins Missing the Point: Zittrain, the iPad, and the Death of Computing

Jonathan Zittrain, a founder of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, is a very smart and witty man. But his ongoing attacks on the iPhone and forthcoming iPad for allegedly taking away our freedom, taken up again today in “A Fight Over Freedom at Apple’s Core” in the Financial Times fundamentally misses the consumer revolution at the heart of Apple’s success.

Zittrain’s thesis, laid out most thoroughly in his book The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It, tightly controlled devices like the iPhone are killing off the “generative” Internet that has fueled so much innovation over the past quarter-century. The success of tightly controlled devices like the iPhone and iPad will drive traditional computers out of the market making us all Appleserfs.

I will admit to a pang of regret that the innards of these systems are increasingly less accessible to users, by which I mean myself. But I have been feeling these pangs since I gave up an Apple ][ for a more complex IBM PC and an even more impenetrable Mac.¬†The openness of the personal computer has been a wonderful thing, but it has come at the very high price of products that are horribly complex and that remain intimidating even while they have become ubiquitous. From the birth of the PC until the mid 1990s this hardly mattered because except for the technorati, computers remained peripheral to people’s everyday lives. As recently as 2000, according to Census Bureau data, barely half of U.S. households had a computer of any sort. Only in the last few years has having a computer and reliable, fast access to the Internet become a requirement for full engagement in the economy and civil society.

The problem that those of us in the world of technology overlook is that most people are using systems that are miserably unsuited to their needs. Our computers, yes even our Macs, besiege us with error messages that could hardly be less useful to people if they were written in Sanskrit. It wasn’t that long ago that Windows regularly accused users of performing “illegal operations,” a message that many people found genuinely upsetting. The biggest difference between a Windows PC and a Mac is that if your Mac gets into a state where you don;t know what to do and you live reasonably close to an Apple Store, at least you have somewhere to go where you can count on getting it fixed.

And the failure-prone, scary of nature of these computers is a direct consequence of their openness. As long as users can install whatever hardware and software they like with no one responsible for quality assurance and no one guarding against adverse interactions there are going to be problems that drive people nuts. Yes, they have the freedom to do whatever they want with their machines, but it isn’t doing them any good.

These failures don’t happen on an iPhone and won’t on the iPad because the flip side of Apple’s control, which Zittrain finds so worrisome, is quality assurance. While some of Apple’s restrictions on iPhones are silly and a few smack of anti-competitiveness, the rules do generally serve to protect consumers.

Although it’s been years since I wrote any code, I can’t imagine giving up a general-purpose computer. My machine of choice for writing this blog is a 27-in. iMac. I typically have several browser windows open for easy cutting an pasting, and they share the screen with an email client, TweetDeck, Photoshop, and iCal (OK, some of these may be minimized.)

I have watched many, may people using computers and most of them, even the relatively computer savvy, don;t work this way. They will often run a single app at full screen, especially on a laptop, and make very little use of their systems’ multitasking capabilities. Most of them would probably be perfectly happy with the iPad, or perhaps even a “desktop” version with a larger display. The only ¬†function of a computer the many users find indispensable and that the iPad lacks is the ability to print, and that is something Apple can fix in software.

Zittrsain closes his FT essay by warning: “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.” Instead, I think iPad-like devices offer people a useful choice: a device that is locked-down but simple and reliable or one that is open but difficult and sometimes intimidating. And many of us may go for both, using one or the other as the situation demands.

Writing (before the publication of Zittrain’s FT article) in a blog tellingly called Freedom to Tinker, Princeton’s Ed Felten says: “It seems unlikely, then, that the iPad, even if it succeeds, will provide strong support for Zittrain’s thesis. General-purpose computers are so useful that we’re not likely to abandon them.”

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3 Responses to “Mandarins Missing the Point: Zittrain, the iPad, and the Death of Computing”

  1. Jonathan Zittrain Says:

    Hi! I completely agree with you — see http://yupnet.org/zittrain/archives/12#6 and http://yupnet.org/zittrain/archives/14#2. That’s what makes this a real dilemma: non-generative (or less generative) devices are very appealing, for just the reasons you say. Would that it were clear that people would have to be crazy to go for iPads! …JZ

  2. Rich Repplier Says:

    Mr. Zittrain, people in technology will keep Linux alive. Then you can have the devices you want, and the public can have the devices it wants. That is called freedom, and I support it. I hope you do.

  3. Mike Ferguson Says:

    I concur with Steve that computing devices, especially mobile ones, need to become more usable and less intimidating. But while increasing dependability and ease-of-use are essential concerns, that does not necessarily dictate how closed or open a system is. The degree of openness or closed-ness that a device exhibits is more often the result of marketing and design decisions that are made early in a product’s life cycle. Such decisions are complex because they involve many criteria and trade-offs, including parameters of cost, target market, competitive environment, compatibility, future product version evolution/adaptability, and post-sales support.

    The most useful “generative” systems are in fact technology platforms that, owing to success/domination of their market space and/or long life in the market, have become genuine or de-facto standards with attendant technology ecosystems. Such standards are becoming less and less viable at the complete system level, i.e. PC hardware, operating systems, or even Adobe Flash. Rather future “generative” characteristics will tend to be found only at the hardware or software component or sub-system level.

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