Thursday, December 8, 2011

"There's an app for that" - but are we getting the best?

The dramatically titled article  "The Personal Computer is Dead",
from the MIT Technology Review written by Jonathan Zittrain, was one of the most thought provoking articles I've read in a long time.  Zittrain describes how the move from personal computers to platform dependent devices such as phones and tablets has restricted the development of software. Zittrain's article focuses on how software is being increasingly controlled and limited by the platform creators (Apple or Microsoft) and how we are no longer getting free access to all the ideas out there.

Anyone can create an app for the iphone - if apple lets them.  But you can't create something that challenges apple's own software or otherwise breaks their rules (the cartoonist Mark Fiore had his app intially banned for ridiculing public officials).  The Android marketplace isn't much freer.  There is still the ability for many people to participate in developing software, but many of the new devices do not allow for opensource software development. Opensource has given us many  successful programs in the last few years, such as Firefox, which I am typing this in and you are very likely reading it on.  The control that the platforms have over new devices may not mean going back to the 'cathedral' or top-down creation of all software, but the bazaar just got a whole new set of cops that don't have to answer to users.  

Most users aren't thinking about what innovations they may be missing because of the current system. While open source is alive and well and available to those users willing to take a little more time,  convenience wins out for many users even if it means they aren't free to change to a new platform or even to really own the content they've purchased. 

If it were just Angry Birds and the latest track from Katy Perry, this might not be such a concern, but more and more the important information in our lives is held by a third party. Financial information certainly, but also our writing, our relationships, our artistic endeavors.  In the name of convenience we often lose freedom and control. 

The analogy of the Cathedral and the Bazaar is often used to talk about computing, read the essay that spawned the analogy here:
The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Steven Raymond

Or, for a much more fun read, get a crash course in the history of computing couched in a post-cyberpunk (and  proto-steampunk) thriller replete with nano-technology, psychedelics, and top hats: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. 

- Lisa Shaner 12.8.11

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