Science & Technology

Steven Johnson Pod Person: We Were Wrong to Resist Apple


Invention of Air author Steven Johnson says the success of Apple's iPhone apps calls into question the wisdom of more than a decade. At least since the late 1990s, conventional thinking has held that closed, top-down, closely policed structures (such as the old AOL and MSN) can't compete with the "generative" power of millions of people working out in the unfenced interwebs. Johnson says the iPhone store is changing that:

Over the last two years, however, that story has grown far more complicated, thanks to the runaway success of the iPhone (and now iPad) developers platform — known as the App Store to consumers.

The App Store must rank among the most carefully policed software platforms in history. Every single application has to be approved by Apple before it can be offered to consumers, and all software purchases are routed through Apple's cash register. Most of the development tools are created inside Apple, in conditions of C.I.A.-level secrecy. Next to the iPhone platform, Microsoft's Windows platform looks like a Berkeley commune from the late 60s.

And yet, by just about any measure, the iPhone software platform has been, out of the gate, the most innovative in the history of computing. More than 150,000 applications have been created for it in less than two years, transforming the iPhone into an e-book reader, a flight control deck, a musical instrument, a physician's companion, a dictation device and countless other things that were impossible just 24 months ago.

0.6 percent of Americans can't be wrong.

Because Apple is what Kevin McCarthy was warning your granparents about, I prefer not to believe this argument, and I hope Steven—who has worked as a distributed-computing guru while moonlighting as a collaborative-filtering seer—is just making a conceit for a column rather than ceding so much ground to the cult of Jobs.

But the iPhone's (and potentially the iPad's) dominance of mobile apps is impressive. This ArsTechnica report has i-Apps accounting for 99 percent of sales at all app stores. That figure, from the marketing research firm Gartner, seems incredibly high, but as Saddam Hussein said of his own vote totals, you can take a lot away from that and it's still a large number. Apple's app store offers many times more products than its competitors. This performance is even more impressive given that iPhone's penetration in the smartphone market is only 25 percent.

That last part may be the solution. Hardware is the word of Apple's undoing. For about a decade, from the introduction of Macintosh to the introduction of Windows 95, Apple had no serious competition in the market for operating systems featuring the then-novel graphical user interface.* I would tell you how that story ended, but it's too depressing. Already, the sock-knocking apps for which the iPhone is loved—including bump and reliable GPS—exist in the larger smartphone market. Steven Johnson, who I'll bet had an eWorld account back in the day, must understand how freedom-loving people will in time recognize the alliance of Apple and AT&T as a menace to be fought with hammers and fire if necessary. (The free market "jungle" outside Apple's "walled garden" gives you the more peaceful option of just buying somebody else's product.)

* Commenter Tulpa points out that Microsoft has always had a larger OS market share than Apple, and that earlier iterations of Windows were available before Windows 95. Having used all of these operating systems through Windows 3.1, I can tell you that they were strictly something you worked around to get to the DOS prompt where the actual applications were available. (Windows 3.1 did have a Solitaire game that worked pretty well.) Reasonable people can disagree, but I say Windows 95 was the first Microsoft OS that behaved like what we now think of as a graphical user interface.