Thursday, April 22, 2010
Rose Garden, Dresden, 2010
I'm a Mac user since 1986 or thereabouts, and Macs have been my primary computer most of that time, a few hiatuses notwithstanding. The last of these ended about six months ago, when I switched to a MacBook Pro for my home computer; I've been on a MacBook at work for over a year now. I really like the Mac as it is now -- I can mostly just ignore it while getting on with whatever it is I want to get on with, which is very high praise for a complex machine.
However, I don't have an iPhone, iPod, or iPad, nor do I intend to buy any of them any time soon. My phone is an aging Nokia E71, and despite being ugly and clunky and generally dated-looking, I like it for the same reason I like my Mac -- it never gives me any trouble, unless recharging it every week counts.
I just bought a Kindle for reading e-books in bed, and am pretty happy with it. However, I think I could find a use for something about the same size that I could also use for more computer-y kind of stuff. In other words, there may well be something iPad-like in my future... but it's unlikely to be an iPad.
My problem isn't with Apple's closed software ecosystem per se. I understand the reasons they want to keep it locked down and controlled. Opening it up would lead to third-party apps that crash it, compromise its security, drain its battery, or don't follow its (industry-leading, exacting, and extremely good) user interface guidelines. The centralized stores, for media, books, and apps, are also a big factor both in making it broadly usable and in generating a steady revenue stream for Apple, which lets it keep making and improving those things.
However, that's not all Apple is doing with its closed ecology. It's behaving in an unpredictable and arbitrary way with it, and in that, it's crossing a few lines that I do not want to see them cross. In particular, two recent examples have caught my attention.
The first event involved Apple rejecting an app for using a pinch-to-expand gesture coded by the app makers themselves, because Apple restricts the use of that gesture to programs developed by themselves only. That is clearly evil -- instead of promoting a uniform user experience, it explicitly differentiates between Apple's and others' applications, and gives Apple an unfair edge. Not a huge thing in itself, but it's symptomatic of a clear willingness to use their power unethically.
The second was more serious. Apple rejected a Pulitzer-winning satirist's app, on the grounds that making fun of public figures was against their policy. This one got eventually escalated up to Steve Jobs, who personally saw to it that the decision was reversed, but it's not the first time. Steve Jobs's recent rantings against porn are very much a part of the same pattern.
This is clearly beyond the pale. The iPad is poised to become a significant platform for delivering content to users. Rupert Murdoch loves it, precisely because of its closed architecture, which makes enforcement of paywalls much more feasible than on the Internet, where stuff tends to leak all over the place. This would put Apple in a position to if not dictate, at least strongly influence what people publish. That's dangerous. It's also completely different from, say, categorizing content with age limits, in order to make it a wee bit more difficult for kids to get hold of tentacle porn (although as long as 4chan is online, a fat lot of good that'll do).
This puts me squarely in the Android camp when it comes to handheld devices. An open software ecology doesn't necessarily have to be a jungle. Ubuntu, for example, curates its own software repositories, which are the only ones enabled by default when you install it. There's no reason Google/Android can't do the same. They're in a position to run an app store/free app repository that's bigger and of better quality than anyone else's, which means that people who don't want the, uh, excitement of exploring the wilderness can just stick to that and get the same kind of consistent and reliable user experience Apple does with its walled garden.
Google isn't without its faults, and it has a scary amount of power, but it has behaved in a pattern that shows that it isn't completely without a moral compass. I've chosen to trust them with my email, my calendar, my blog, and lots of my documents. If they violate that trust, I'll be very upset -- and, frankly, I don't really know where I'll go.
I'll stick to the Mac on my desktop, but I'm not getting on board the iThing train. Not unless Apple publicly recognizes that it's screwed up, and takes action that shows it intends to grow its walled garden in ways that don't endanger media independence or screw unfairly with the competition. Freedom of speech is a precious thing, and government censorship isn't the only thing threatening it. Great corporations wield great power, and abuse of that power can be every bit as dangerous as abuse of governmental power.