Via my good friend Sanjana, some observations from Jonathan Zittrain's new book The Future of the Internet (and How to Stop It): "Though these two inventions—iPhone and Apple II—were launched by the same man, the revolutions that they inaugurated are radically different. For the technology that each inaugurated is radically different. The Apple II was quintessentially generative technology. It was a platform. It invited people to tinker with it. Hobbyists wrote programs. Businesses began to plan on selling software. Jobs (and Apple) had no clue how the machine would be used. They had their hunches, but, fortunately for them, nothing constrained the PC to the hunches of the founders. Apple did not even know that VisiCalc was on the market when it noticed sales of the Apple II skyrocketing. The Apple II was designed for surprises—some very good (VisiCalc), and some not so good (the inevitable and frequent computer crashes).
The iPhone is the opposite. It is sterile. Rather than a platform that invites innovation, the iPhone comes preprogrammed. You are not allowed to add programs to the all-in-one device that Steve Jobs sells you. Its functionality is locked in, though Apple can change it through remote updates. Indeed, to those who managed to tinker with the code to enable the iPhone to support more or different applications,4 Apple threatened (and then delivered on the threat) to transform the iPhone into an iBrick.5 The machine was not to be generative beyond the innovations that Apple (and its exclusive carrier, AT&T) wanted. Whereas the world would innovate for the Apple II, only Apple would innovate for the iPhone. (A
promised software development kit may allow others to program the iPhone with Apple’s permission.)"
Ah, the dangers of writing futurist technology books.
First, since the publication of Zittrain's book (and partially in response to all the outrage), Jobs has reversed himself:
There's still quite a way to go (like dumping the ridiculous NDA, and allowing distribution outside of the Apple app store) -- but the forces of freedom (the Rebel Alliance?) are clearly winning. As they usually do in the technology world.
Second, here's a radical thought: don't buy an iPhone. Apple is building a closed ecosystem out of economic self interest - they'll keep it closed as long as they can (though as Sanjana notes, even a closed ecosystem can have its hiccups). If you like open standards, go with linux running on a PC. Or if you want the same (arguably better) portable platform, get an Instinct. You can write apps for it in Java. Merry Christmas.
Third, open platforms are good for nerds like me, but my wife and mom need a closed platform. This is an inevitable consequence of the expansion of the reach of technology. Many potential consumers out there just want it to work, and they don't want crashes. I don't mind crashes so long as I can tinker and figure out what happened. So the evolution of open and closed platforms are just the industry reaching out to as many consumers as possible.
For geeks, this is a time of staggering freedom, from mash ups to youtube to bit torrent to open source. The web has delivered on the promise of the original Apple II in an incredible way. Are there forces threatening it? Sure. But to say we're on the cusp of some wholesale shutdown of the freedom of the web is alarmist.