Give me liberty or give me… Shiny?

Yes, I know, we’re all bored to death already by the iPad, and the iPad lovers, and the iPad haters, and the iPad feminine hygiene jokes, and the…

But let’s still take a moment to consider the real problem with the iPad. As Defective By Design notes, it is probably one of the most restricted and centrally-controlled computer platforms ever sold. Not only is all iTunes content (other than music) still controlled by Digital Restrictions Management (DRM), but:

All applications must be signed by Apple if they are to run, an unprecedented level of control for a general purpose computer.

As Defective By Design continue:

The iPad’s unprecedented use of DRM to control all capabilities of a general purpose computer is a dangerous step backward for computing and for media distribution.

The iPad was being widely touted as a “netbook-killer”. That will be a shame if so, as the netbook is a much more “pro-freedom” device, as Jeff Atwood argues in his post A Democracy of Netbooks. As Atwood points out, the netbook features:

No monthly fees and contracts.

No gatekeepers.

Nobody telling you what you can and can’t do with your hardware, or on their network.

In contrast, smartphones (the target of Atwood’s post) “will forever be locked behind an imposing series of gatekeepers and toll roads and walled gardens”:

I don’t care how “smart” your smartphone is, it will never escape those corporate shackles. Smartphones are simply not free enough to deliver the type of democratic transformation that netbooks – mobile PCs cheap enough and fast enough and good enough for everyone to afford – absolutely will.

I’ve been concerned for some time about the rise of the locked-down mobile device and its implications for software freedom. The iPad takes the “corporate shackles” of the smartphone and attaches them to the general purpose computer. This is worrying in itself, given how (as Defective By Design point out):

This past year, we have seen how human rights and democracy protestors can have the technology they use turned against them.

A task which only becomes easier where devices are under centralised control.

Even more worrying is if devices like the iPad begin to supplant the general purpose computer as we know it today. That would eventually make it easier – particularly in the face of concerns about “cyber-terrorism” or copyright “piracy” – for governments to argue that only devices under such tight control should be permitted for ordinary citizens.

So, what’s it to be? Do we want the shiny but tightly-controlled world of the iPad, or the messy (even occasionally “crappy”) freedom of the netbook and other general purpose computers? On second thoughts, don’t answer that question…

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3 Responses to Give me liberty or give me… Shiny?

  1. JS Bangs says:

    I find it so very hard to care about these kinds of “software freedom” issues, since they seem to ignore the way that most people relate to computers. In particular, for everyone except a smallish clique of hackers, a computer is a communication and social appliance. These people don’t want to run arbitrary software on their computer, they want to run a small number of apps, and they want those apps to work well. Apple’s policies are actually in the interest of the non-hacker user because they ensure a certain baseline of quality and keep out the crapware and malware.

    Now, for people like you and I, it’s more fun to have a computer that you can crack open to poke around in its guts. I’m sure that open, general-purpose computers will always exist for this purpose, but I’m also starting to think that the open computer platform was an artifact of the early days of computing, and that the future is closed-platform, because that allows you to deliver a better user experience.

  2. John H says:

    JS: It’s true that most people don’t care about software freedom issues most of the time and just want things to work – but then, that’s true in every area of life. Most of the time people want the institutions and processes they encounter in life to “just work” – the problems come once they run up against some limitation or hindrance, and are then told, “Sorry, you’re not able/allowed to do that”. That’s when they become aware of the wider issues.

    It’s not just geeks who use Firefox and OpenOffice.org. It’s not just geeks who buy Android-powered mobile phones. And it’s certainly not just geeks who use websites powered by free software. People benefit from software freedom without being remotely aware of (or interested in, or sympathetic towards) people like Richard Stallman.

    What your argument amounts to is saying: “Software freedom has gone far enough. Ordinary users have benefited from it as much as they’re going to. Now we can lock everything down in the name of ‘user experience’.”

  3. JS Bangs says:

    My argument is not that software freedom has “gone far enough”. I hope that free software goes as far as it can! But the difference is that I don’t regard software freedom as an intrinsic good. It’s good only insofar as it delivers things that the users want, and I see nothing wrong with trading software freedom for software stability, safety, and usability if that’s what the user values. Apple has the corner on “stable, safe, and usable”, so it’s no wonder that they’re conquering the market for general user.

    (I use Firefox (and Chrome). OTOH, I wouldn’t wish OpenOffice.org on my worst enemy.)

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