Freedom. It’s a word that stirs deep feelings in the heart of any American, as much as the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or Ronald Reagan’s inaugural speech. So when I tell you that your freedom is threatened by your attitude about computers, you will no doubt listen carefully.
What is Appliancization?
It’s actually not me but Jonathan Zittrain who’s out to convince you that “appliancization,” the transformation of personal computers from flexible generative platforms to locked-down appliances, threatens your freedom—or perhaps more accurately, the freedom of technological progress. Appliancization is particularly apparent in Apple products. The typical iPhone can only run software from the App Store, and the App Store can only contain apps that confirm to Apple’s nebulous whim. This means that if you buy an iPhone, you are buying not a completely customizable platform, but an appliance whose functionality may be limited by Apple’s judgment. With their Mac App Store, Apple threatens to do to the personal computer what they have done to the smartphone.
Why do we allow this ostensible appliancization to happen? According to Zittrain, we trust Apple-approved products because we value our computers’ safety above all else: “Viruses, spam, identity theft, crashes: all of these were the consequences of a certain freedom built into the generative PC. As these problems grow worse, for many the promise of security is enough reason to give up that freedom.” Whether or not Zittrain is intentionally paraphrasing Ben Franklin here, the way out of our appliancization conundrum is clear: we must show that, as consumers, we value generative freedom over security. The first step is to, um, give up your Apple products.
Maybe Apple Isn’t Evil, Yet
Let’s be honest, the technical word you just learned about isn’t quite enough to convince you to relinquish your Apple fetish. In fact, I’m pretty sure you don’t care that much about generative freedom, as long as you get to keep playing Angry Birds and taking artsy Instagram photos. Zittrain might give consumers too much credit when he claims that people use apps out of an informed desire to avoid bad code. What really drives us to apps is not security but convenience.
I’m not ashamed to admit that we’re all sheeple, guided by our desire to get the products we want with the minimum amount of effort. Apple has made thousands selling a smaller version of a bigger version of a 5-year old product. Now it is profiting off of, quite simply, a convenient market in which to acquire software. What would really drive people into the App Store isn’t, as Zittrain claims, a network security crisis, but some crisis where Google breaks and it becomes even more inconvenient to search the web for software.
Moreover, I would hesitate to call Apple’s actions outright “appliancization.” Sure, Apple might push its own apps and occasionally act irresponsibly as a gatekeeper, but its products are far from appliances. The iPhone is a platform, albeit a shiny, somewhat limited platform: apps can serve a vast variety of different innovative functions.
A Widespread Problem
It’s not just Apple that holds us under its corporate thumb, either. Zittrain claims that the rise of “Web 2.0,” the increasing use of browsers to do just about anything, also threatens technological innovation. Do you remember the days when you used an email client instead of Gmail, an instant messaging client instead of Facebook chat, and your computer’s built-in calculator instead of Wolfram Alpha? Or are you too busy listening to Pandora and browsing Tumblr to care? This very WordPress site demonstrates the ubiquity of Web 2.0, from its reliance on user-generated content to that weird gray sidebar on the right that doesn’t seem to serve any purpose.
Despite being a PC user who considers himself completely above all of those unthinking short-sighted mac users out there, I spend 95 percent of the time on a word processor or a web browser. I am completely dependent on the structure of the internet and the integrity of my web browser when it comes to most of what I do on a computer.
Sheeple Aren’t That Dumb
Web 2.0 presents a structural vulnerability in our network that is not immediately apparent, but Apple presents a more manageable problem. If you believe my claim about sheeple consumers, in the end, it’s not norms or laws, but the market that will decide our future. Zittrain can’t stop people from buying Apple products, but Apple can. As soon as the App store starts infringing on our convenience, customers will take notice. And if the infringement grows to the extent that it outweighs the convenience of using the App Store, a separate market will emerge to satisfy consumers. If Apple decides to use its control over its hardware to block such a market, even fewer people would buy Macs. The average consumer might be dumb, but he’s not that dumb.
Developers, too, still have a stake in the survival of the App Store. They no longer have to process transactions or track licenses on their own. As soon as a critical mass of developers see the App Store as a detriment to their work, an alternative will emerge. If Apple blocks an alternative from emerging, they will lose the developers and the generative capacity they offer.
As we witness the development of Apple-style appliancization, we should also note the benefits that come with it. First, people unfamiliar with technology find app-based computers easier to work with, and those people matter too. Second, Apple doesn’t dictate the future of the PC; there remains a significant portion of the population that prefers the more open, non-Apple personal computer. We’ll sit back, grab some popcorn, and wait for what Apple does next.