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Business - Written by on Wednesday, March 26, 2008 15:38 - 6 Comments

Naumi Haque
Kill the iPhone, save the Internet

The iPhone, Xbox, BlackBerries, and other proprietary, closed Internet-enabled devices are dooming the PC and taking the Internet with it; or so says Jonathan Zittrain. I’m currently reading an advance copy of Zittrain’s new book, “The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It,” in which he discusses the trend away from the generative PC to “sterile appliances tethered to a network of control.”

The battle for the democratization of the internet – net neutrality – is fairly loud (although not nearly loud enough if you think about what is at stake). Similarly, there’s a lot of talk about open APIs and open platforms for customizable applications. However, the discussion around the transformation of the PC itself from an open platform to locked-down appliance is much more subdued. But, as Zittrain notes, “the endpoint matters.”

“Eliminate the PC from many dens or living rooms, and we eliminate the test bed and distribution point of new, useful software from any corner of the globe. We also eliminate the safety valve that keeps those information appliances honest. If TiVo makes a digital video recorder that has too many limits on what people can do with the video they record, people will discover DVR software like MythTV that records and plays TV shows on their PCs. If mobile phones are too expensive, people will use Skype. But people do not buy PCs as insurance policies against appliances that limit their freedoms, even though PCs serve exactly this vital function. People buy them to perform certain tasks at the moment of acquisition. If PCs cannot reliably perform these tasks, most consumers will not see their merit, and the safety valve will be lost. If the PC ceases to be at the center of the information technology ecosystem, the most restrictive aspects of information appliances will come to the fore.”

In a way, we asked for it. As much as consumers want freedom of use, we also want to be free of viruses, spam, identity theft, crashes, and other consequences of an open design. Many users more than welcome the onslaught of hassle-free information appliances with useful packaged activities. I’m the same; just give me something that works, looks cool, and does what I need it to do.

Furthermore, Zittrain suggests that Web services could be a corroborating force behind the end to generativity. While this may sound counter-intuitive (i.e. Web 2.0 and open APIs allows users to create, share, and alter applications), the argument against software as a service is that since the data no longer resides on our machines, it is inherently risky and binding (i.e. it becomes difficult to switch providers or revert to older versions of code if necessary).

Scary stuff for sure. The solutions, according to Zittrain lie not only in legal intervention, but also in socializing the technical layer of PCs and the Internet in the same way that we have socialized the application layer. Virtual PCs, grid computing, and data portability are all at the heart of this.

I’m still on the fence on whether the threat is overblown or not. I can’t help but think of an uncalculated balancing force; the diligent group of hackers, mashers, and discriminating Net-Generation users that continue to fight for open environments. Mass collaboration and Wikinomics are drivers that work in favor of the user and standards-based open design principles. Remember hacks for the iPhone were revealed days after its release (see Brendan’s post on Apple vs. collective intelligence), and Xbox Linux, as well as Free60 for the Xbox 360 have been downloaded by hundreds of thousands of users.


For those interested, the intro to the Zittrain book is available for download here (from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development).


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Ken Leebow
Mar 26, 2008 16:51

Of course this fear is overblown. By having a device like the iPhone (and other smart devices) with us at all times, the greatest educational (all ages) revolution is under way. This revolution is just beginning, however, over the next few years, in our palm, we’ll be walking around with the equivalent of a computer.

Now let’s hope the content follows. Because we know content is King.

Mar 27, 2008 11:32

The death of the PC should not be an issue. It’s like caring about the death of the CD, who cares, something better has replaced it. There will probably always be PC’s for those who prefer optimal performance in certain hardware and want large visual displays. But the majority of the population makes a waste of all that good hardware just by only using a PC to go on Facebook or chat with friends. Let them have their mobile devices and gaming consoles.

Stop caring about an issue where the only solution is to evolve and adapt, and find a niche market for your product.

Mobile Technology and the Web « Chandra’s Couture Blog
Mar 31, 2008 16:42

[...] able to mobilize thousands of people. This shows society is now using mobile devices as tools. The wikinomics blog entry on March 26 suggests that the advancement of cell phones is so great that it poses a threat [...]

Lessig on a post i9-11 future « Dan Herman Research & Consulting
Jan 18, 2010 20:43

[...] This message mirrors part of the thesis proposed by author and Harvard Law School Professor Jonathan Zittrain in his new book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.” In it, Zittrain argues that we’re on the path to Internet lockdown thanks to a combination of proprietary devices and malicious intent. You can read my colleague Naumi’s review here. [...]

Wikinomics – Apple’s apps | Google’s web: What is the future of the internet?
Sep 17, 2010 15:16

[...] wrote about much of this before in a Wikinomics post about Jonathan Zitrain’s book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.” [...]

Apple’s apps | Google’s web: What is the future of the internet? « Not Another Framework
Oct 4, 2010 17:52

[...] wrote about much of this before in a Wikinomics post about Jonathan Zitrain’s book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.” [...]

Now available in paperback!
Don Tapscott and Anthony D. William's latest collaboration, Macrowikinomics: New Solutions for a Connected Planet. Learn more.

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