What’s all the fuss about? – by “Dan T”

I am often impatient with arguments that assume we live in a free-market world, because we don’t – people don’t always think or behave rationally, and competition isn’t always perfectly fair.  But in some cases, imagining that the way things are is just a reflection of market forces can be helpful in understanding a situation.  What if, rather than being marketing victims duped by Apple, Google, or any other software company promoting software-as-service, tethered appliances, or locked-down devices (which you might believe to be the case if you read the comments on tech blogs), people use these services because they want them?  Call me crazy, but maybe the shift toward non-generativity stems from the fact that non-generative devices suit people’s needs, or at least do so better than generative ones.

Apparently, the good guys are now the bad guys

I’ll suggest that for the vast majority of the population, that is true.  Grandma doesn’t need a generative PC.  Grandma needs a device that will help her get the job done, even though she has no idea how a computer works.  It needs to be intuitive and safe, so that even when she clicks the wrong button or performs the wrong procedure, nothing truly bad happens.  She doesn’t want to deal with software that is potentially ineffective or malicious.  The fact that both the number of programs she can run and the number of in-program adjustments she can make is greatly limited is probably of no concern to her.  She just wants secure software that gets the basic job done.

I’ll also suggest that where we are now is a fairly normal and expected place on the timeline of a new technology, rather than the splitting-train-tracks situation depicted on the front of Zittrain’s book.

Dramatic, much?

New technology often starts out generative and ends up non-generative.  The automobile, for instance, started out much more generative than it is today – around the turn of the twentieth century, there were hundreds of hundreds of manufacturers tinkering around with their machines.  While it wasn’t quite as generative as the PC or the Internet, the engine was fairly accessible and the automobile owner could make his or her own changes as desired.  That’s still true today, but to a much lesser extent.  Auto technology has improved to such an extent that most car owners would rather take their car to the mechanic than look under the hood themselves, and manufacturers are increasingly finding ways to monopolize repairs and prevent owners from making their own adjustments.

So what happened?  Around the turn of the century, everybody and their mom was trying their hand at making cars.  This led to a lot of innovation, and some problems: breakdowns were frequent and car safety was a novel concept.  The industry started cleaning itself up around 1930 as people became concerned about reliability and safety.  The number of manufacturers greatly decreased and names like Ford and Chrysler came to the forefront.  These days, most people would not even consider buying a car from an amateur.  But there are still isolated tinkerers out there.

Am I crazy for thinking that what’s happening to software is essentially the same thing?  When a new type of technology shows up, it’s often basic enough that anyone can get involved.  Lots of people do, and some of what results is awesome and pushes the frontiers of the technology.  And some of it sucks. This vanguard is not particularly perturbed with the suckiness, but that all changes once the technology is spread to people who aren’t interested in the technology itself, but rather the benefits it might carry for them.  These people don’t want potential.  They want current value.  They are interested in what the technology can do, not what it could do. Obviously we’ve seen this with the PC and with the Internet.

To cater to this population, hackers started making software and hardware for non-hackers.  It was user-friendly and reliable, and not as generative.  In fact, the more user-friendly and reliable the software, the less generative it was.  This is essentially unavoidable.  Most software is only useful if its capabilities are spelled out and finite.  Make it any more generative than that, and it’s easy for the user to get overwhelmed.

Seriously, this is the population we're dealing with here.

But the reason that we shouldn’t get concerned about this shift is that it represents the expansion of software (or any technology) into a new segment of the population rather than a transformation of the technology itself.  The hackers still want generative software and hardware, and they’re still getting it (more on this in a second).  The people who want a reliable experience are getting that.  So everyone wins.  It’s not a zero-sum game, because the software industry is not monolithic.  What is happening now is essentially consumer discrimination – Apple and other giants are writing software for n00bs, and smaller developers (but also to some extent the giants) are writing software for hackers.

Of course, Zittrain gets this (he quotes critic David Post: “a grid of 400 million open PCs is not less generative than a grid of 400 million open PCs and 500 million locked-down TiVos”).  He has two main concerns: first, that through market dominance non-generative software will eventually swallow generative software; and second, that a generative software world is more advantageous than one that is primarily non-generative.

I don’t think the first consideration is as threatening as Zittrain makes it out to be.  The fact is that the software market is very, very large, and there are many, many niches.  Since hackers write software, and hackers are the kinds of people who will generally want generative and unlimited software, you have to construct a pretty convoluted hypothetical in order to get a world where literally all software comes through corporate giants.

The second concern should be taken very seriously though.  How important is creativity?  Is it more important than efficiency?  Is it more important than security?  Is it more important than giving people what they, on some level, want?  These are obviously big questions.

Come on, Ben... tell us how you REALLY feel.

Ultimately, I just can’t side with Zittrain here.  The primary argument for bolstering the generativity of software is that the advantages it provides in innovation outweigh the negatives.  That argument has a lot of merit, but only for some segments of the population.  How much innovation is Grandma realistically going to produce?  Innovations are always driven by a very small portion of a given population: the curious, creative types, the inventors.  Most people just consume and don’t innovate, and that’s okay.  The 400 million open PCs referred to by Post are probably just as generative as the most innovative 25 million-PC subset.  Most of those PCs are, generatively speaking, dead weight.

1% of the computers have 99% of the generativity... sorry Grandma.

So what’s important is that these different groups have different environments.  The inventors want and need a sandbox to play around in, and if given one, they’ll continue to push the frontiers, develop new products, and make cool new toys.  The consumers want and need the toys.  They don’t want the sandbox; they’re not in it for the mucking around.  If you give them one, they’ll get frustrated, they won’t do anything, and they might even get hurt.

Given that, we don’t want a purely generative software environment.  We want a segmented environment in which the software that is generative is incredibly generative – it is essentially unbounded in its capabilities (with all of the associated problems and complications) – and the software not in that category is safe and efficient first, and generative second.  In this environment, people can choose where they belong, depending on the task, and adjust as necessary.  In other words, we want an environment that is roughly the result of market forces.  Most purchasers will look for safe and non-generative software, so most software will be safe and non-generative.  And enough people are interested in generative software to keep that niche healthy and the innovations flowing.

In order to bring about and maintain this kind of environment, generative software needs to be absolutely sacred.  We’re putting all of our innovation eggs in one basket, so in the generative environment needs to allow for as much creativity as possible.  Jailbreaking most devices should be legally protected.  Of course, the developers of those devices can terminate their warranties and withdraw support, but if users want to experiment with their hardware or software, they should have the right to.  You can purchase a tethered device if you want to, but you ought to be able to “de-tether” it at any time (manufacturers can determine whatever non-legal consequences that will entail from their end).

Future law will require humane treatment of anthropomorphic electronics.

While these changes would definitely help, I think we’re doing just fine now, all things considered.  Yes, software, the PC, and the Internet are all becoming less generative for most of the population, but until they become less generative for everyone, I won’t be sweating bullets, and on the other hand, the security that comes with non-generativity may be just what Grandma is looking for.

All-in-one or Nothing at All? – by “Ker M”

The desire for increased compatibility, portability, and adaptability in technology–particularly, internet technology–has been the driving force behind innovation in the past few decades. From the room-sized giant proto-computers of the 70’s to the netbooks and iPads of the new millennium,  technology has become faster, smaller, and more capable. My Blackberry serves as my phone, calendar, instant messenger, and internet and e-mail client when I’m on-the-go; and it conveniently fits in my pocket.

To pull from the Electronica duo, Daft Punk, the motivating factor behind this “harder, better, faster, stronger” mentality is the seemingly indisputable claim that all-in-one technology is ideal. But is this really true? Sure, the advent of these all-in-one technologies can make life a little easier in some senses, but how is it affecting true technological development?

All-in-one devices have fueled the fire behind technological appliancization. Companies that create these machines restrict how they can be used and what can be used on them for user safety and product stability. The idea is that restrictions on what one can and cannot do are necessary to prevent a user from putting a program on the device that will harm it. Since it is an all-in-one device, that would mean losing everything: phone contacts, important documents, etc. This appliancization, though increasing user safety, has seemed to make the technology stagnate in terms of development. Sure, the devices are a little faster and can hold a bit more memory than they could in the past, but true innovation has been stifled because of the big company roadblocks that prohibit developers from contributing to the technological wealth of knowledge.

Perhaps this can most easily be seen in the public rhetoric used to promote these devices. The discourse revolves around the same few features: internet speed, number of applications available, and screen resolution. None of these showcase the innovativeness of the design or functionality. Why? Because, in general, there isn’t any. Just look at these articles about the Playbook and the Tab. These articles discuss the new players in competition with Apple’s iPad, focusing on those aspects of the devices which are not actually different from those available on the Apple machine. It becomes more clear that the companies creating these all-in-one devices are not actually concerned with technological development (in the way early computer pioneers were), but rather with market competition. The strategy questions change from “how can we make our consumers lives better?” to “how can we narrowly outdo our competitors for a small bump in revenue this market period?”.

This type of technological development leaves everyone unsatisfied. The ability for devices to do more and more is great until something goes wrong. Restrictions on individual developers  stifle creativity, while company goals shift from the user to the market. In the end, all-in-one appliances leave us with nothing at all.

Google Voice now on iPhone: A Bit Worrisome – by “Kirby Z”

After our recent discussion of privacy on the web, I am a bit troubled by the possible implications of Apple’s acceptance of the Google Voice app. The reason why I am worried is that this app that seems so wonderful and alluring to users but actually means people will be filtering all of their info through Google at a potentially high cost, and it just made an enormous jump in its user-base.

With this application, one can send and receive texts for free, make free domestic calls and receive large discounts on international calls thanks to some clever rerouting of call placement. One can also have their voicemails transcribed so they can be read like regular text messages or emails, it is simple to integrate one’s address book, and one can set up personalized greetings for each caller. On the surface, these all appear to be very useful, beneficial additions to one’s iPhone, but if we look a bit deeper they could bring someone a lot of grief.

For example, one is able to send and receive free texts because they are through Google. We have already talked about the possible embarrassing scenarios that could arise from having Google remember your search history and personal information, so it should be easy to guess what could happen if Google were able to read and track everything you say to someone over SMS. Also, a far worse problem could be if some devious hacker were able to tap into Google Voice and abuse it by reading and releasing someone’s texts. I might be a bit on the paranoid side, but the thought of a Google Voice version of FireSheep almost gives me the shudders. If this were to happen, we probably would not all look as guilty as Tiger Woods, but I for one have had some private conversations that I would really prefer were not made public.

Also, the feature that allows for free domestic calls and cheaper international calls could be turned against you if a hacker were to weasel into Google Voice. It is one thing to overshare on sites such as Facebook or Twitter, but it is an entirely different beast if a hacker could always tell where you were just because you called a friend using Google Voice. It would bring a whole new dimension to the problem that the “PleaseRobMe” website tried to address, and would be particularly invasive seeing as how Google Voice integrates your contacts and address book, thus exposing your friends and family.

Some more worrying aspects of this ‘innovation’ have to do with security from the government. In the Zittrain reading, it was said that the FBI has apparently used OnStar as a “mobile bug” to listen in on people’s conversations in OnStar-equipped vehicles. Who is to say that the FBI or the government would not similarly ask Google for access to someone’s Google Voice account to spy on him or her? Moreover, what if the government decided to do a network wide search for any type of contraband, similar to the search Michael Adler described in the Zittrain reading? Just a thought.

Basically, I am a bit afraid that Apple’s recent adoption of the Google Voice app could mean its users would become what’s really ‘tethered’ in that the app could be used as an innovative tool to abuse privacy in a way that regular use of Google or any other Internet site could not compete with, seeing as it accesses something far more personal: our phones.

There’s an App for THAT? – by “Stephanie R”

Android Market, retrieved from android.com

Watch out there, folks.  Though to some the open App Marketplace may seem like the best thing ever, to others it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen (or at least it allows for a significant level of creepiness).  For example, the SMS Secret Replicator Andriod App, created by DLP Mobile, forwards all text messages from the cell phone on which the app is installed to another phone of the downloader’s choosing.  If that’s not creepy enough, once the app is installed, it leaves no trace of its existence on the phone, so there is no way of knowing it is present on the device.

One aspect that clearly differentiates the Android Market from the Apple App Store is the idea of an open market to which any developer is welcome and encouraged to upload a custom-made application.  However, in late October of this year, Google initially approved the SMS Secret Replicator app, and then removed the application from the Andriod market just 18 hours later claiming it “violate[d] the Android Market Content Policy.”

iPhone Apps, retrieved from apple.com

Being a Palm Pre user myself, I am not extremely familiar with the unlimited world of mobile applications.  However, while I have explored the facilities of an iPhone on multiple occasions, my knowledge of Android phones is quite limited, so I decided to speak to a close friend about her Droid experience.

Though my friend initially desired an iPhone, her current wireless carrier was Verizon, so she settled on an Android device as her first smartphone.  After her first month as an Android owner, she loves her “sleek and user friendly” phone with great apps and she doesn’t “feel like [she’s] missing out on anything the iPhone has to offer.”  Though she was unaware of the ability of any developer “to easily publish and distribute their applications directly to users of Andriod-compatible phones” after paying a $25 registration fee (as stated on the log in screen of the Android Market), she likes that it allows for more selection and choice, but does not think that anyone should have access to personal information such as “your location, biographical information and other private information” through certain applications.

Upon hearing of the SMS Secret Replicator for the first time, her reaction was, “Umm…does that exist? Cause that is really creepy. …I don’t think an app like that should exist.”

SMS Secret Replicator Application, retrieved from hothardware.com

Exactly, this Application should not exist, and thanks to two specific aspects of the Android Market Developer Distribution Agreement, it has been suspended.  Section 4.3 begins “You agree that if you use the Market to distribute Products, you will protect the privacy and legal rights of users….If your Product stores personal or sensitive information provided by users, it must do so securely and only for as long as it is needed.”  While personal or sensitive information usually refers to items more like passwords or medical information, I believe it is safe to say that individuals tend to send personal or sensitive information in text messages when they are under the impression that they are aware of exactly who will be receiving that information.

Section 7.2 Addresses Google Takedowns – “While Google does not intend, and does not undertake, to monitor the Products or their content, if Google is notified by you or otherwise becomes aware and determines in its sole discretion that a Product or any portion thereof or your Brand Features…(e) may create liability for Google or Authorized Carriers…(g) violates the terms of this Agreement or the Market Content Policy for Developers…Goodle may remove the Product from the Market or reclassify the Product at its sole discretion.  Google reserves the right to suspend and/or bar any Developer from the Market at its sole discretion.”  Essentially, the SMS Secret Replicator Application had the potential to create liability for Google and violated the privacy of users, which, in turn, is a violation of the terms of the Agreement.

Though this specific application has been banned, the thought that if I buy an Android phone, someone can potentially pick up my phone if I leave it unattended and quickly download an application that will forward all of my text messages to their phone is terrifying.  So don’t leave your Android on a table by your “friend” while you run to the restroom.  With an ever-expanding app market, the next thing you know, every photo you take with your cell phone camera will wind up on your mom’s computer screen in the middle of the family kitchen.

It appears that within the past few weeks the two previously mentioned app purchasing locations (the Android Market and the Apple App Store) are moving closer to one another in terms of rules and regulations.  While Google has advertised its Android Market as a place where anyone can contribute their original idea for an app, it has had to start cracking down on developers who have taken this liberty one step too far.  On the flip side, previously known for it’s rather strict censorship rules when it came to allowing developers to use certain development tools when creating an app for an Apple device, Apple received a great deal of ridicule for rejecting apps on ridiculous platforms.  The company has recently decided to relax its restrictions on the use of these development tools, giving developers more flexibility, and to publish the App Store Review Guidelines to improve transparency.  Unfortunately, many issues with these guidelines have been recognized – especially by developers.

Google Voice for Mobile

As part of this new, relaxed Apple restrictions, as of today, the Google Voice app has been approved for the iPhone.  This is a pretty big deal because between when Google submitted the application to Apple over 16 months ago and today, the FCC had to step in to ask whether Apple and AT&T were trying to prevent Google’s services from competing with their already built-in features (including making voice calls from the cellular device, sending text messages, checking voicemail, etc.). Shall we jump back in class a few months to the topic of Net Neutrality?

As of today, the Google Voice app can be downloaded for free on the iPhone. The Google Voice mobile app has already been available on Android phones and Blackberry phones for a few months.

Google Voice for iPhone, retrieved from blogsdna.com

Tethered Tethering? – by “Wesley W”

Many are noticing the shift toward tethered appliances.In his book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop ItProfessor Jonathan Zittrain argues that the Iphone and similar devices may herald the end of the internet and the death of innovation. Sometimes the devices are engineered such that the user is not only unable to use applications not approved by the manufacturer, but is also unable to use the device for anything the manufacturer doesn’t want them to. In some cases it gives manufacturers the ability to change functionality remotely without much notice. Apple’s devices have often been the subject of the tethered appliance discussion due to their policies regarding the Iphone. But as Apple helps to usher in the era of tethered appliances it begs the question of who stands to benefit from this trend?

Usually only the manufacturer benefits from obliterating all ability to tinker with their product as they can then control what type of innovation occurs as they have to license any application before it can be bought by users. This allows the manufacturer to monopolize the market surrounding their product. So not only do you pay them for the device, you have to continue to pay them if you want applications for your device. (MMmmmm profits are delicious). For consumers that means more costs and less innovative technology.

This type of locking-down on the functionality of devices raises concerns for the ability to use your device as a modem for internet service, or “tethering”. This kind of “tethering” allows you to access the internet on a laptop by connecting it to an Iphone for example. AT&T provides phone service and internet access for Iphones and other smartphones on their 3G network. They charge for access to their network service. However “tethering” allows you to avoid paying AT&T for a separate wireless data plan for the second appliance by using the phone as a wireless modem. Although you’re only using the internet you’ve already paid for, AT&T may wish to charge extra for “tethering” capabilities. Can they do this? Maybe with the help of tethered appliances.

Imagine combining the desires of AT&T with a tethered appliance like Apple’s Iphone where they have the ability to prevent you from “tethering” without paying them to do so. Not so hard to imagine because that may not be too far from reality. In the past the Iphone’s OS allowed for users to relatively easy “unlock” their Iphone to allow it to function as a modem for other appliances for free. However this year’s recent Iphone OS update (3.1) has removed this workaround. AT&T and Apple are supposedly working on “fine-tuning” the network to support this service. It remains unclear whether it will be made available again or when it does whether it will be for free or if there will be costs attached. So far the tethering issue has been approached cautiously by AT&T as it adds strain to their 3G network and is a very big issue for users who booed when it was announced earlier this year that AT&T was not among the carriers that would support tethering for the 3G Iphones. Currently other types of phones, like a BlackBerry®, have pricing plans with AT&T that include “tethering” and cost between 30-60 dollars.

Currently the IPhone pricing plans do not have any “tethering” charge attached as AT&T is discouraging users from using the Iphone in this manner until they prepare their network for the increased traffic the millions of Iphone users could create.  No one is really sure about whether Apple and AT&T plan to charge users for the ability to “tether”. However it is clear that with Apple’s help the Iphone’s functionality can be taken away without much warning. If they find a way to make money from the high demand for this function will AT&T and Apple choose to do so? How much will it cost Iphone users? As of today, Iphone “tethering” is still unavailable. So it remains to be seen whether or not “tethering” will become a costly application of Apple’s newest tethered appliance.