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  • November 2008
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iPhone – The New CompuServe

zittrain_bookI’ve wanted to write about one of my recent reads for quite a while now, but couldn’t get around to it until now. The Future of the Internet, and How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain is an intriguing read about where we’ve been in our computing history and development, and where we’re heading. He is not trying to stop the Internet from having a future, rather he is trying to stop the Internet from evolving into something very different from what it has been. Basically, this is the net neutrality argument explained with great detail in understandable terms. But it’s more than just that.

The only part of the book that this post will deal with is a small portion of his material dealing with tethered appliances and generative (vs. non-generative) devices.

Right at the beginning of the book, Zittrain draws the distinction between the development and introduction of the PC and that of the iPhone. Regarding the introduction of the Apple II personal computer over 30 years ago, “The Apple II was a blank slate, a bold departure from previous technology that been deployed and marketed to perform specific tasks from the first day of its sale to the last day of its use.” (continuing from page 2) “The Apple II was quintessentially generative technology. It was a platform. It invited people to tinker with it.”

Contrast that with the iPhone (pg. 2). “The iPhone is the opposite. It is sterile. Rather than a platform that invites innovation, the iPhone comes preprogrammed. You are not allowed to add programs to the all-in-one device that Steve Jobs sells you. Its functionality is locked in though Apple can change it through remote updates. Indeed, to those who managed to tinker with the code to enable the iPhone to support more or different applications, Apple threatened (and then delivered on the threat) to transform the iPhone into an iBrick. The machine was not to be generative beyond the innovations that Apple (and its exclusive carrier, AT&T) wanted. Whereas the world would innovate for the Apple II, only Apple would innovate for the iPhone.”

Zittrain also devotes some quality time to exploring some of the early proprietary systems such as “Networks like CompuServe, The Source, America Online, Prodigy, Genie, and MCI Mail gave their subscribers access to content and services deployed solely by the network providers themselves.” (pg. 23) He continues: “PCs were to be only the delivery vehicles for data sent to customers, and users were not themselves expected to program or to be able to receive services from anyone other than their central service provider. CompuServe depended on the phone network’s physical layer generativity to get that last mile to a subscriber’s house, but CompuServe as a service was not open to third-party tinkering.”

The part that I find ironic is probably perfectly obvious by now. No self-respecting geek or pseudo-geek (I put myself in that category) would have been caught dead subscribing to AOL or Compuserve when the wide open Internet was just sitting there waiting for them to shed the bindings of the proprietary service providers. However, these same geeks and pseudo-geeks can’t wait to get their hands on the iPhone.

Zittrain ties it altogether on page 106. “Indeed, recall that some recent devices, like the iPhone, are updated in ways that actively seek out and erase any user modifications. These boxes thus resemble the early proprietary information services like CompuServe and AOL.” I think it’s funny that the iPhone fanatics don’t look anything like the old AOL and CompuServe fanatics.

Zittrain’s book deals with much more than what is included in this post. I highly recommend it, except maybe to the iPhone fanboys who might not like being compared to a CompuServe fanboy. This book is available for free on the Internet, although you can also buy a copy in almost any bookstore. I got mine at Amazon.