“The PC is dead,” declared Harvard law and computer science professor Jonathan Zittrain last week in the MIT Technology Review.
Thanks to consumers’ ongoing migration from laptops and desktops to mobile devices, and thanks to those devices’ relatively restrictive designs, “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,” Zittrain writes. His assessment: “This is a little for the better, and much for the worse.”
Zittrain is part of a cadre of Internet scholars and technology pundits who lament the shift from PCs—with their relatively bottom-up, open infrastructure, which allows users to run practically any software they choose—to devices that lack the same openness or "generativity." The complaint isn't new, and the wider debate boils down to a question over how much producers of digital devices should be able to control the products they produce and the software and content on them. But Zittrain adds a semi-nonsensical twist to the argument against walled garden operating systems.
[Apple] developers can’t add an icon for their app to the desktop or the dock without user permission, an amazing echo of what landed Microsoft in such hot water. (Though with Microsoft, the problem was prohibiting the removal of the IE icon—Microsoft didn’t try to prevent the addition of other software icons, whether installed by the PC maker or the user.) [Emphasis Zittrain’s.]
In the eyes of U.S. and European regulators, one of Microsoft’s antitrust sins of the 1990s was ensuring an Internet Explorer icon appeared on every PC desktop that shipped with a Windows operating system. Now, Apple’s apparent sin is allowing users, rather than software developers, to choose which icons appear on their computers.
But the fact that apps must routinely face approval masks how extraordinary the situation is: 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: what used to be a Sisyphean struggle to stanch the distribution of books, tracts, and then websites is becoming a few takedown notices to a handful of digital gatekeepers.
Setting aside Zittrain’s comparison of "censorship" by tech companies with the suppression of information by governments, it's bizarre to imply that (genuine, government) censorship today—in a digital age that allows people to throw websites up and publish information in seconds—is easier than when we just had books and papyrus and the like.
And is it really so "extraordinary" that a private company would choose to design its products and offer its services on its own terms? Apple does operate its app store under relatively strict terms—a practice that may make getting an app approved a relatively onerous and lengthy process but has benefits like keeping malware out of its software offerings. Zittrain himself has noted that the shift in models of operating systems has been “driven by a desire for better security and more convenience.”
Most software users aren't power users—they prefer devices that are easy to use right out of the box, like many of Apple's "closed" products. As Ars Technica's Timothy B. Lee (also an occasional Reason contributor) noted in his thorough treatment of the topic, "How I learned to stop worrying and love the App Store":
It made sense for early personal computers to demand that their users have specialized knowledge. But as computing technology matures, it's natural for most consumers to want to outsource the process of vetting software to more knowledgeable third parties.
Of course, there will always be a segment of the market that wants unfettered control over their computers, just as there is a market segment that prefers to drive a stick-shift car and change their own oil. That's important, but in the long run, these power users will be a small part of the market. Most people just want their cars and computers to work without thinking about it too much.
In Reason's March 2011 issue, Adam Thierer countered concerns shared by Zittrain and similar internet scholars while addressing "the rise of cybercollectivism."