No Longer Afraid

Fraser Speirs, Back In:

iPhone OS is the first mass-market operating system where consumers are no longer afraid to install software on their computers (I’m not counting read-only media software platforms like games consoles here). In a conversation recently, a friend recounted a scene that he passed by in an airport. Four fifty-something women were sitting at a cafe table discussing the latest apps they had downloaded on their iPod touches. New software can’t break your iPhone OS device and, if you don’t like it, total removal is only a couple of taps away.

This is one of the central points Paul Ohm and I make in a forthcoming review of Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet. Zittrain is right to worry about how customizable the computing devices that ordinary consumers use are. But it does not automatically follow that the iPhone and the iPad are bad news just because they are more locked-down than a standard PC. As Zittrain himself recognizes, sometimes a teaspoon of improved stability can give users more practical flexibility than a gallon of undiluted technological openness would. There’s a good case to be made that iPhone OS gets the balance right.

I’m a bit puzzled by this. The issue is not whether closed computing platforms should exist, but rather whether users should have the power to defect if they want to. So those who want the warm, comforting embrace of the iPhone ecosystem can stay there, but those who want to jailbreak and thereby create a parallel ecosystem should also be free to do so. This potential for openness on any platform does not undermine security for non-defectors, but it does indirectly constrain the potential evils inside the walled garden. See Lessig’s insight about the value of open source software in constraining governments and proprietary software alike.