LJ Archive


Prisons vs. Horizons

Doc Searls

Issue #193, May 2010

How do closed content distribution devices pose threats to the Net's future?

The most important strategic moves in the tech world are more often orthogonal than oppositional. Put another way, capture is vertical while freedom is horizontal. If you want to escape from prison, you have to go sideways. And the outside is infinitely wider than the inside—higher too, but first you have to get out. If open is your strategy, ya gotta move laterally—to the outside, toward the horizons.

Last month, I wrote about how Apple's iPhone, the most cushy prison ever created for both developers and users, is challenged less by competing prisons than by open smartphones based on Google's Android. To review, the iPhone is a silo that stands on one company's closed OS and hardware. It is equipped with a slick SDK, rules galore about how products should run and developers behave, and a single retail sphincter—the iTunes “store”—through which all products, even ones that cost the customer nothing, are sold. Meanwhile, Android phones are restricted only in the sense that they have one (Linux-based) operating system, which is open to improvement and adaptation by anybody. There's no limit to its horizons.

So, while Apple has raised the bar for what smartphones can do, Google is now widening it. (So, for that matter, is Symbian, another open smartphone operating system that has more users than Apple's and Google's phones put together. Disclosure: I consult the Symbian Foundation.)

And now, with Apple's new iPad, the open OS folks have another category to widen. Fortunately, Apple has made it easier this time. That's because the iPad is a much narrower silo than the iPhone.

While smartphones are extensions of one's self (they are, primarily, phones), the iPad is mostly a consumption device. It is built to “deliver content” and to get money for it. All the other stuff the iPad does—e-mail, browsing, looking at picture albums and home videos—is gravy. The meat of the iPad is its system for pumping out content and getting money for it. Among the goods for sale through iPads are TV shows, movies, newspapers, magazines and books. In other words, the iPad is a better Kindle, with video and audio as well as print. Apple is also much better at playing this whole game—closed distribution through closed gear—than Amazon. Already (at the time this writing, in early February) Apple is winning “the e-book battle” by giving publishers what Amazon wouldn't give them: the ability to charge higher prices.

But content trapped in prisons is not the whole world, or even a majority of it. There's a limit to how big you can make a prison, and to the appeal of any prison to potential occupants. All these prisons still stand on the Net, which was built as a place where anybody can make and share (or sell, or both) anything. What we need now in that wide-open space are tablets that are more than real nice ways to “consume content”.

We're sure to get them. Google is reportedly already working on one (or more) Android-based tablets. Maemo-based ones from Nokia have been coming out for half a decade and are bound to get better. I would love it if the Dells, Acers and HPs of the world would come through with open tablets based on open Linux OSes—and market them aggressively. I suppose one or more of them will, eventually. Meanwhile, we'll get what we want anyway. It's a big world, with lots of hardware makers.

What I'm worried about isn't the silos—or silos alone. The biggest dangers show up one layer down, where the Net's wide-open spaces are being carved up and fenced off while our leading blabbermouths are distracted, as usual, by vendor sports and other narrow concerns. Some of the carving is between silos. And while it's worth worrying about how much “content” gets locked up and how, there are problems just as big, if not bigger, at the national level. Writes Stephen Lewis, “By resting on a 'borrowed' infrastructure, the Internet has inherited the 'gatekeepers' that own and control, charge for, and regulate these legacy elements....Such organizations still carve up the world according to geopolitical entities and borders defined between the late-eighteenth century and the mid-twentieth and gerrymander services and access accordingly.”

Nowhere is this a bigger deal than in China, where the Internet is replaced by a highly censored “Cinternet”. The Open Net Initiative reports that more than 40 countries filter the Net, affecting more than a half-billion users.

Where the two threats—corporate silos and restrictive natures of nations—come together is around copyright. Here the frictions meet and lock. The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), currently being negotiated between the US, the European Union and other national entities, would, in the words of Aaron Shaw, “include sweeping provisions to criminalize information use practices currently allowed under US, European, and international law.” Thus, to protect influential industries from “piracy” on the Net's high seas, ACTA would drain the oceans, replacing them with well-guarded canals.

All new regulations have the effect of protecting yesterday from last week. The irony here is that the Internet—even in its currently restricted places—is the best platform for tomorrow that humans have ever invented. If ACTA passes, it will find eager enforcers in the private prisons already being built.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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