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“We need some angry nerds”

By - November 30, 2011

Jonathan Zittrain has an important op ed up on Harvard’s site, and I hope all of you will go read it. It sums up many of the points that I hit as I write here at Searchblog, and that will enliven my next book What We Hath Wrought. Key points:

Rising numbers of mobile, lightweight, cloud-centric devices don’t merely represent a change in form factor. Rather, we’re seeing an unprecedented shift of power from end users and software developers on the one hand, to operating system vendors on the other—and even those who keep their PCs are being swept along. This is a little for the better, and much for the worse…..

…in 2008, Apple announced a software development kit for the iPhone. Third-party developers would be welcome to write software for the phone, in just the way they’d done for years with Windows and Mac OS. With one epic exception: users could install software on a phone only if it was offered through Apple’s iPhone App Store. Developers were to be accredited by Apple, and then each individual app was to be vetted, at first under standards that could be inferred only through what made it through and what didn’t. For example, apps that emulated or even improved on Apple’s own apps weren’t allowed.

The original sin behind the Microsoft case was made much worse. The issue wasn’t whether it would be possible to buy an iPhone without Apple’s Safari browser. It was that no other browser would be permitted…

….Developers can’t duplicate functionality already on offer in the Store. They can’t license their work as Free Software, because those license terms conflict with Apple’s.

The content restrictions are unexplored territory. At the height of Windows’s market dominance, Microsoft had no role in determining what software would and wouldn’t run on its machines, much less whether the content inside that software was to be allowed to see the light of screen…

…tech companies are in the business of approving, one by one, the text, images, and sounds that we are permitted to find and experience on our most common portals to the networked world. Why would we possibly want this to be how the world of ideas works, and why would we think that merely having competing tech companies—each of which is empowered to censor—solves the problem?

This is especially troubling as governments have come to realize that this framework makes their own censorship vastly easier…

…A flowering of innovation and communication was ignited by the rise of the PC and the Web and their generative characteristics. Software was installed one machine at a time, a relationship among myriad software makers and users. Sites could appear anywhere on the Web, a relationship among myriad webmasters and surfers. Now activity is clumping around a handful of portals: two or three OS makers that are in a position to manage all apps (and content within them) in an ongoing way….

….If we allow ourselves to be lulled into satisfaction with walled gardens, we’ll miss out on innovations to which the gardeners object, and we’ll set ourselves up for censorship of code and content that was previously impossible. We need some angry nerds.

I’m not a nerd, quite, but I’m sure angry.

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33 thoughts on ““We need some angry nerds”

  1. The last sentence was pretty funny… should’ve dropped the “sure”. Keeping it in there made you sound like the nerd you say you aren’t. Just kidding. Kind of. 

  2. Steven B. Levy says:

    Why is it so hard to give Microsoft credit for the open environment they created with Windows — and have maintained on Windows and Windows phones? Microsoft didn’t invent this, of course, but they made it work commercially — and have continued to stand up not just for open access to running apps on their OS but for making both tools and information available to developers. There are plenty of things you can beat on them for, but give them more than backhanded credit when they get it right!

    (For the record, I’m a former long-time Microsoft employee but haven’t been associated with them for some years.)

  3. Anonymous says:

    Out of the myriad of blogs and articles I read, interestingly enough, I have yet to hear any meaningful objection to the walled garden these handful of portals have created. So much so, that I even forgot it was a problem. 

    Thanks for sharing. 

  4. BB says:

    I’m craving the HTML5 Cookbook now, maybe we can whip up some non-native web apps
    for the season, you can almost taste the disruption! I’m fed up and will resist
    being served “baked in” apps on everything from appliances to autos with all that cloud tethered, mobile controlled “goodness”.

  5. Jithesh TR says:

    Yes, now we are going to see a fight between the Priests (Open Ecosystem/Open Source people) and Satan (Apple and Co.)! But this time, the satan is real i guess!

  6. zato says:

    “Jonathan Zittrain has an important op ed up on Harvard’s site,”
    Jonathan Zittrain is a professional anti-Apple propagandist. Anyone who thinks the Zittrain op ed on Harvard’s site is “important”, is also an anti-Apple propagandist. If you don’t like Apple’s business model, then step off. Go somewhere else. There are other choices. 
    “….If we allow ourselves to be lulled into satisfaction with walled gardens,”
    Hater/creeps.

    • Anonymous says:

      How many people pay you hundreds of thousands a year to teach, educate, and for your pure level of intelligence?

      No one? I am not surprised. Only Apple fanatics believe they are more intelligent than others based solely on the products they buy.

      • Anonymous says:

        You don’t know many Android users, then.

        • Anonymous says:

          Take a quick look at the public view of Apple fanatics vs. Android users. I bet the general public do not have an opinion on the fanaticism of Android users. Yet, it is pretty hard not to have experienced many dozens of times just in the past decade Apple loving retards claiming that their platform is just better “because”.

          You do realise that in 2001 the biggest reason I had to not buying Macs was the bloody fanatics! I made the wrong decision when I figured they could not be that bad once you had Macs… they were WORSE! Mac fanatics have been legendary, and it has been a media joke about Apple fanaticism. The media doesn’t report on the fanaticism of Android people. They have four or five stories every year quietly making fun of the Apple fanatics in line… waiting for days for a product. During the cold war, USA used to laugh at 6 hour lines for products in “Soviet Russia”… just what sort of a joke is it when capitalists line up for three days? Ever seen Android users wait three days for a product? No? Yet, you claim that Android users are the fanatics. Sorry to burst your bubble, but Apple fanatics are not just fanatics, you lot are a JOKE!

          Oh, the standard comeback of mac fanatics is to claim that I am an Android fanatic. Well if I am it comes from EXPERIENCE with ALL the options. I have purchased the following in the past four months. In order…  iPad2 64GB, Windows 7 Tablet, Android Tablet, Windows 7 Tablet, Windows 7 Tablet and finally a fourth Windows 7 Tablet. The iPad is the worst product ever! It is like having a stinging case of the clap, without the fun that gets you into the trouble. Computer wise, I type this on my 17” MBP, I own 4 Macs, 2 Windows machines, a Linux machine and an Amiga (that I can not find a replacement for)… So when I say that iPad is truly crap, it is an educated opinion. I have lost count of the number of Mac religious fanatics who have just this year accused me of not knowing how good Apple products are because I have not experienced them. When, it is the mac fanatics who are projecting their own lack of experience on others. Don’t embarrass yourself the same way because I can and will rebut any stupid claims and accusations.

          • dbv says:

            @boybunny:disqus
            A totally brilliant response. 

            Soon after the iPad became available, I trotted down to the Apple Store to have a play and was completely underwhelmed.  But, I understand the iPad’s success which is that for a vast number of people it is more than sufficient for their needs.

            Microsoft could have bifurcated its products ten years ago if it had listened to real users instead of playing the “let’s add even more features in this version even though people say they don’t use 80% of the features”. 

            Apple has just been prescient in understanding the consumer.  We in the open-systems world need to take a cue from Apple’s success and out-do Apple.

  7. 5k camera says:

    anyone who fights the evil search giant can’t be all that bad.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Not going to happen

    Excellent piece, however as a fellow nerd, I would like to say the following.

    In the UK at the height of Microsoft’s power, Europe, passed numerous fines, and rulings against Windows; with the last one being on Internet explorer.

    Putting this point aside, we now enter a situation where Apple is doing the same with no repercussions (irony). I no longer own an iPhone, however I was privy to the to the ” hoo-hah” of Opera’s numerous rejections.

    I was an immediate Jailbreaker of my iPhone. The term does, no justice to this community that Saurik and others have built.

    So here’s where I disagree, nerds did get angry, and moved onto cydia. The uprising you seek needs to be done by the average iPhone user. This will never happen, from within. It will need to be forced.

    Regular iPhone users are too busy facetiming to notice.
    …and the angry nerds are phreaking their phones out (2nd irony, Woz & jobs were phreakers)
    @fr3kysnail twitter

  9. dbv says:

    I am a geek and founder of a startup developing an app for the Android device.  We also want to develop for Apple’s iOS but cannot because it is a closed-system.  I am so glad that this issue is starting to be covered.  It is quite incredible what Apple has got away with and it poses a tragic outcome if developers do not start moving onto a more open device.  I don’t like what Google is doing with their Android Market and Amazon is far worse but at least the opportunity exists to create alternative distribution systems with Android.  Only in this open vs closed systems reality distortion field can we look at Microsoft as the good guy and Apple as the bad guy – who would have thought it just a decade ago.

    I’ve been one helluva angry geek for sometime about Apple’s iOS and believe that a monumental battle between developers and Apple is emerging at the grassroots.  As long as Google and Microsoft stay on the side of developers then the battle can be won.

  10. Dan Julio says:

    I’m a nerd (hardware + software developer) and I have a slightly different take on this situation.  While I am sympathetic to the arguments presented by Zittrain, I think he misses the big picture.

    The personal computer as we know it, with identifiable operating system and applications, is just a pitstop on the road to the information appliance that computing devices will ultimately become.  And this has been the goal of the computing industry the entire time even if individuals within the industry didn’t understand that.  It is like the evolution of the automobile from a machine that required a lot of user knowledge and intervention in the beginning to today’s machine.

    From the perspective of a non-technical user, components of a personal computer (software or hardware) are a mystery that they’d prefer never to have to think about.  They have only had to think about them because of the primitive state of the industry.  The industry has been working very hard on a quest to ever-simplify the computing experience.  Reliability, plug&play hardware, hiding the operating system, consistent user interface and experience.

    We’re now at the point — with the introduction of a new class of information appliance, the smartphone — where we have the opportunity to hide a remaining big, unnecessary technical complexity: the need to identify the software components such as OS, applications and various helper add-ons such as device drivers.  Although the iPhone runs a variant of OS X, no user ever need know this or deal with software upgrades or additions.  They are handled almost completely behind-the-scene by Apple.  Apple is also tackling the problem, from the user’s perspective, of the application.  First they have taken some technical mystery out of it by associating the word “app” more with the idea of getting some specific need taken care of than with the idea that this is a piece of software.  Then they have taken some of the risk out by vetting the application to some degree and providing a single point for users to find solutions to the problem they want to solve.  There is no involved process to install the application, they simply read about it (on the web or inside a store baked into the device) and get it.

    The majority of users of information presented by some electronic device do not and should not care about anything under the hood that gets that information to them.  They want absolutely no computer science visible whether it is the thermostat on their wall or the phone in their pocket.

    There will always be the ability to program these devices but the move to submerging all computer-related aspects of the devices is simply the evolution of these devices from the horse&buggy to the Model A to the Model T to a vehicle that parks itself and never requires you to open the hood.  While we may argue about the downsides to this evolution, it is inevitable as the computer grows up.

    • dbv says:

      Open-systems developers can also deliver what Apple provides. 

      One thing that Google and Microsoft could do to spur a massive movement to their mobile platforms is to reduce or eliminate the 30% “distribution” cut they take from paid apps purchased from their market sites.  Let it become a loss-leader in this area.  Google makes revenue from advertising and doesn’t need the 30% cut whereas Apple needs the 30% to augment its hardware revenue.

      Microsoft’s mantra has always been “developers, developers, developers” but Google has been excruciatingly slow in understanding developers as it has not been a part of their DNA.  Google should focus on allowing developers to do with Android everything that Apple’s iOS doesn’t.

      • Muadib1158 says:

        There are some studies out on the web that demonstrate that Apple makes very little profit (comparatively speaking) on the Apps.  The care and feeding of that ecosystem consumes most of the revenues they earn from the 30%. 

        What’s also interesting to note is how few developers actually make any money on the App store.  It’s certainly not the massive moneymaker that many developers would hope it would be.  Either due to competition, pricing constraints or the signal to noise issues associated with 500,000+ apps to choose from. 

  11. I warned about this in the context of access to information in developing countries in http://mysite.pratt.edu/~jtomlins/619/globalization_information_infrastructure_and_equity.pdf

  12. David Brown says:

    Philosophically I’m against the walled garden for the same reason I’m
    against any concentration of power that provides the opportunity for
    abuse of individual freedoms and liberties. This includes ObamaCare,
    Communism, Monopolies or Totalitarian regimes of any name. So what is a
    walled garden and how did most of us get here? A walled garden
    is all about control and who decides what a weed is. It’s about safety
    but it’s also about power to control the behavior of others.
    The
    iPhone is a great example of a walled garden. Who are the gardeners
    that keep the garden free of weeds? And who decides what and who is a
    weed? Apple. America started out as a weed and weeds have
    provided what is called in genetics “hybrid vigor” which can produce
    offspring much better than two purebreds can ever hope to. This is a
    scientific fact. After all, most of the first immigrants from Europe to
    the New World were weeds of sorts. Our forefathers were the unwashed
    and unwanted rebels, the outcast and state criminals that would risk a
    dangerous trip across the Atlantic in the hopes of finding new
    opportunities for freedom to not only survive but to prosper without
    molestation from an oppressive monarchy or church. From
    Apple’s perspective and many others it makes perfect sense to have a
    walled garden. You must have rules and requirements for any
    application that third party developers put on the Apple iPhone.
    Problem is they make the rules and all decisions are final. So, if
    Apple doesn’t approve of your point of view or your software doesn’t
    meet their criteria, then your software will never see the light of day
    on the iPhone. With the wide adoption of Apple products, this is a
    problem. If the PC is dead and we all adopt the ease and comfort of
    using walled garden products from Apple and others, what is to come of
    our freedom?

    • Nobody says:

      I quit reading at ObamaCare.  That’s a code word for I’m “angry at not and not intelligent enough to see that I’m being manipulated into being angry at the very people trying to help me.”

  13. quixote says:

    To Dan Julio’s comment: Yes, knowledge of mechanics is now unnecessary to drive a car. But that doesn’t mean your dealer controls which seat cushions you may buy or what you see through the windscreen.

    Ease of use, one-click installs, and all the rest do NOT have to be a gateway into total control over the user. Which is where the walled gardens are taking us. It’s also fairly sinister in the context of the metaphor that the users are no longer the main customers. Our attention and clicks are sold to marketers, who are the real customers.  We’re just farm animals.

    Time for a Chicken Run (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicken_Run).

  14. Anonymous says:

    The nerds are angry because for the first time regular users have access to computing without genuflecting to the neck-bearded priesthood.

  15. Dazza says:

    Personal computers are far from dead and I don’t believe they are going anywhere in the short to medium term.  Tablets and some smart phones are simply enhancements.
    Try running your iPad without a PC?Casual users who simply browse the web, and check emails and play a few simple and basic games may be happy with the iPhone or iPad or androids devices but obviously they are not developers, content creators, data management or business users etc etc but use instead these devices for what they are; glorified toys and information display devices. (Some even allow phone calls!)Yes they are handy for some minor enhancements to modern computer use but are yet to be anywhere near the use of a PC.You can’t comfortably run any real business software on them, ie accounting, data management etc. You can’t play real games, or serious development on them.  They basically have the power of 15 year old desktops with smaller screens, limited input capability and clunky limited support, with a closed system that restrict usage and penalizes the developer. The walled garden approach may work in the short term and for the casual users while the hype is still strong, but will eventually kill any real innovation and turn away further developers.  Just need to look at the Apple programs already. Copies of copies of copies of copies. Very few innovative new apps. Same stuff, rebadged, recolored and resold. There are a lot more novelty devices out there for the layman and novice, but serious computer enthusiasts, businesses, developers, and hobbyists won’t settle for the restrictive systems that Apple etc offer or the limitation of these devices.Providing Microsoft and the linux systems remain affordable, available and reasonably open, then PCs will always be in demand to many of us.

    • dbv says:

      Agree with most of what you say but disagree that mobile phones (in reality, they are computers that can also be used as phones) and tablets are ‘toys and information display devices’.  They are predominantly, particularly tablets, consumption devices and as can be seen by the success of the iPad there is a massive market out there of people who want the technology hidden.  The bigger point is that developers in the open-system world should and must deliver equivalent devices and services.  Like you said, the iPad is effectively 15 year old technology packaged brilliantly but aimed at people who just want limited functionality.

    • Anonymous says:

      I agree that PCs are not dead, but I do not think that mobile devices are going to be underpowered for long. We need he generative PC model really engaged on mobile platforms.

  16. Marcelo says:

    John, what a post. And the comments here are gorgeous to read.

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