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.

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9 Responses

  1. […] be a positive characteristic of my Apple Appreciation that as soon as I saw the title of Barry Dahl’s recent blog post I had a good idea what he was going to say and that I was going to agree (for the most part). I […]

  2. This makes sense if the only plane of comparison is by looking at the aspect of can you hack it. Compuserve and AOL did not innovate the internet experience, they recast the experience other pioneers were having in the open space into one intended to make it “easy” for the common folk.

    If you and other Apple haters can take off the thorn in your sides, the iPhone as a technology platform (disregarding the service) is ground breaking in the networked connected device with a touch interface.

    Let’s see, form quoted page 2, “You are not allowed to add programs to the all-in-one device that Steve Jobs sells you”

    That’s funny, because I have added about 50 programs in the 8 weeks I have owned one. I can already hear the response how Big Steve and Apple are being so tight clamped on developers. I don’t necessarily like how tight that seems to be, but I am not suffering in any way form being able to customize the iPhone.

    I dont like the AT&T lock in. I guess the part about Steve reaching in and wiping out my phone is not something I can stand behind, but it is not something that keeps me up at night, or gets in the way of the ways I am using the technology.

    I dont expect different sides to agree on this, but I see a whole lot of religious zealotry of If You Cant Open It Up and Freely Hack It, There are many devices I use successfully without that use needing to hack it.

    I am a fan boy, you are not. The world is still okay.

  3. What is actually ironic is that Zittrain’s book (published in April 2008) and his claims about the iPhone that you quote above ceased to be true by July 2008, when Apple released the iPhone 2.0 firmware update.

    Today, statements like “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. …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” are all blatantly false. You can add programs, the functionality is extensible, and thousands of developers outside of Apple are building innovative applications for the iPhone. Like the personal computer, it *is* a platform, and, arguably, it’s the most successful platform for a handheld computing device to date.

    I think the lesson here is less about iPhone fanatics and more about the half-life of sweeping claims in this quickly-changing industry.

  4. I think Greg makes a point. The App Store changes the game some. Sure it’s not as open as Android – but (and I continue to claim, in my best Nixonesque manner, “I am NOT a geek!”) as someone who appreciates things that “just work” – the experience of the iPhone has more than met that expectation – and the “command and control” nature of the App store model continues that (for the most part). And that is a trade-off I can live with (good experience where things “just work” versus 20m of tinkering – and those dreaded calls to tech support) at least for now.

    Note – I’ve need in a strategic planning meeting the past two days talking about portal. My epiphany – the iPhone is MY enterprise portal – not the command and control lock down my IT folks coerce me into – but one I can mash-up any number of “apps” in. And I can do that because I’ve “out-sourced” the standardization to Apple.

    Someday Barry – you will have an iPhone…

  5. Apple now has Rhapsody as an app, which is a great start, but it is currently hampered by the inability to store locally on your iPod, and has a dismal 64kbps bit rate. If this changes, then it will somewhat negate this advantage for the Zune, but the 10 songs per month will still be a big plus in Zune Pass’ favor. Have you tried the ipad? you can get one free at FreshGiftCard.com

  6. Hey. I don’t care what anybody says, the iPhone (and iPad) will always be the best.

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