TEXT OF COMMENTARY
Kai Ryssdal: It’s going to be a couple of weeks yet before we see the newest version of the iPhone — Apple aficionados are waiting with bated breath, I’m sure — but for more people who are concerned with what’s cool on the inside than how something looks, the Apple brand’s a little less cool than it used to be.
Commentator Jonathan Zittrain explains.
Jonathan Zittrain: In 1977, a 21-year-old Steve Jobs unveiled the Apple II PC. For the first time, in a convenient single plastic-molded case, there was a device that you could take home to give you… a blinking cursor. But you could write programs to make it do whatever you wanted and run programs written by others. After two guys unrelated to Apple invented VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet, sales of Apples skyrocketed and Apple didn’t even know why.
In 1984, Jobs gave us the Mac, the first PC that didn’t act like a build-your-own Heathkit. Gone was the blinking cursor; turn on the Mac and it smiled at you! But it still ran code from anywhere. It could still surprise us.
Now fast forward to 2007. Jobs puts forward the iPhone. It’s gorgeous, it’s versatile, it’s intuitive — it’s more Mac than a Mac. But it will not run just any outside code. Outsiders can’t just send the next VisiCalc to iPhone owners directly. Instead, proposed new software must go through the centralized iPhone Apps store. Apple takes a cut of each piece of software sold and reserves the right to kill any app it doesn’t like. Limits so far? Piracy, porn, bandwidth hog and “unforeseen.” No more surprises.
As goes the iPhone, so goes the world. Nerds of today are coding for cool but tethered gizmos like the iPhone and Web 2.0 platforms like Facebook and Google Apps. All of these platforms are attractive, but they naturally keep control in the hands of the platform maker in a way that the famously proprietary Bill Gates never achieved with Windows.
You might think that’s not so bad, but there’s something precious about that plastic-molded case, the blinking cursor that says anything is not only possible, but likely. Thanks to our own tastes, similar to those that prefer Wal-Mart to the local general store, the Wild West IT landscape is, sadly, going suburban for most of us.
That’s a future I hope we can still avoid.
Ryssdal: Jonathan Zittrain is the co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. His new book is called “The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It.”
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