Applications and Appliances: A Conversation with Jonathan Zittrain


Building on my critique in Zittrain vs. Zittrain and some recent thoughts of his own on the subject, Jonathan Zittrain and I did an email dialogue about the intersection of apps and apps: what happens when locked-down appliances can run downloadable applications? We talk about generativity, security, developers’ choices, and the future of general-purpose computing.

The whole exchange is posted at Freedom to Tinker, a singularly appropriate home. Here’s the beginning:

JG: I suppose the place to start is with your concern about “appliances”: single-purpose devices like the TiVo. What’s wrong with boxes that do one thing and do it well?

JZ: Nothing’s inherently wrong with single-purpose devices. The worry comes when we lose the general-purpose devices formerly known as the PC and replace it with single-purpose devices and “curated” general-purpose devices.

JG: In the last few years, the appliance has taken on a new face, thanks to downloadable apps. An appliance with an app store is no longer just a single-purpose device: it can do all kinds of things. But that, you’ve argued, doesn’t really fix the fundamental problem.

JZ: It may look like the best of both worlds, but I worry it’s the worst of both worlds.

JG: I wanted to focus on your critique of the Mac App Store. This one is interesting because it sells programs that run, not on a closed device like the iPhone but on a traditional, general-purpose computer. The day that Apple activated the Mac App Store, it didn’t reduce the Mac’s generativity one iota. Every Mac in the world was just as capable of doing everything it used to be able to do, just as easily. All Apple added was a new way to install programs: so they made the Mac even easier to use, without reducing its power. But you’re skeptical. Why?

JZ: Let’s see how much of an advantage a developer sees from having an app in the App Store vs. “sideloaded,” even on a Mac OS that doesn’t require jailbreaking for sideloading. To the extent that users are looking to the App Store for their wares, it’s a de facto limit on generativity even if not a literal one. But I agree that the real worry is if Mac OS should become routinely configured not to allow sideloading at all.

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