Bread and Circuses

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions—everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

Juvenal, Satire 10 77-81 (c. 100 AD)

For decades the personal computer industry has been relatively open. You could choose from a variety of motherboards, processors, memory, video cards, and hard drives. You could install Windows or Linux or FreeBSD or (as long as you purchased Apple hardware) Mac OS. You could walk into a brick-and-mortar store1 and purchase software to use with your computer, and none of the hardware or operating system vendors had to “approve” it. Or you could go online and download whatever you wanted.

Yet within the past few years the “open” personal computer has been under concerted assault. While the urge to close the computer market is not new the ferocity with which companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google want to lock down the personal computer is shocking.

And people seem to be going along with it.

Apple

Apple’s products are beautiful. I love their hardware and I respect their ability to execute their designs and make great products. But their philosophy of managing the computer on my behalf is not just something I cannot tolerate; I think it’s ultimately unhealthy for the post-PC era they’re ushering in.

Apple insists this is a quality issue. Apple creates devices with proprietary, patented connector “technology”, so if you decide you want to make a product that plugs into an Apple device, you must license their patents.2 Apple will only license the accessory side of the connector; making other devices that can leverage iDevice accessories is not allowed. This shows that control is the primary goal.

Again with applications, Apple insists this is a quality issue. They correctly identified that the “unknown” quality of applications on the internet makes installing software from unverified sources a very risky prospect. Their solution for iOS was to ban all software installation except from their own approved source, and they would run tests on the software to make sure it was “safe”. Yet we know this isn’t foolproof (and can never be). We also know that Apple has used this veto authority to block products that compete with their own,3 4 simulate Apple’s encryption,5 or contain legal but controversial speech.6 7 8 These are much more about protecting Apple’s brand image than in serving the customer. And they are taking steps toward making this same policy apply for Mac OS X with its new app store. Steve Jobs was opposed to any form of third-party native apps for iOS;9 if he’d had his way, all native iOS apps would have come from Apple.

And Apple is not content with producing their own products that participate in their own walled garden. Jobs swore to destroy Android,10 the most open (but not wholly open) successful mobile operating system.11 The Jobsian vision of the future is of Apple, the benevolent dictator, making sure our computers are safe and wonderful. That will work, but only if Apple is actually benevolent. Apple’s intolerance for any dissenting vision (illustrated by using questionable patents to get competing products banned from the market)12 and their existing track record of app store rejections suggest that benevolence is not something we should count on. Apple will be benevolent only as long as it’s in their financial interest to do so; once they have hobbled all competition, that incentive will fade.

Microsoft

Microsoft seems to be eager to follow in Apple’s footsteps. The new Windows RT won’t allow any applications except those they approve of;13 the new devices are also required to have locked bootloaders so that competing (open) operating systems cannot be installed.14 Microsoft is taking steps to apply a similar lockdown on more traditional PCs by “encouraging” PC makers to only allow signed bootloaders,15 making it difficult enough to install other operating systems that RedHat elected to just have Microsoft sign their bootloader.16 Microsoft would never be so emboldened if Apple weren’t so successful with the iPad and pushing the Mac in the same direction; they believe customers are now preferring more restricted systems, so they need to make Windows more restricted.

Google

That leaves Google’s Android as the most open major17 mobile platform. Even here, restrictions abound. Major cell service providers in the US insist that Android devices come with locked bootloaders,18 19 preventing users from replacing (or even upgrading) the operating system on their own devices. Or they disable sideloading of applications, locking users into Google’s app store.20 Or they drag their feet on allowing device makers to upgrade the operating system.21 Or they insist devices come bundled with unremovable “crapplets”.22 Device makers themselves are as much to blame; Amazon is happy to take the core of Android and refashion it into a device that is locked to Amazon’s online store.23 And there are applications that refuse to run if they detect a device has been rooted.24

Prognostications

Part of this whole trend is that computers are growing up. They’re integrated into our lives and we’re dependent on them working properly, so naturally we want reliable devices that we can trust. But what kind of future do we want? Who, ultimately, should be able to choose what our devices do?

There are two answers to that question: one that is right, and another one that is likely. The one that is likely seems to be a darker future where “the masses” are ever more disenfranchised but don’t care because they have their bread and circuses. Part of the “not caring” is normal and reasonable; our computers should be easy for us to use without requiring constant care. But there is plenty of room for recognizing what we’re giving up to get that convenience.

I am not without hope. Ma Bell didn’t want anyone else’s telephones connecting to their network, claiming it would impact the reliability of the network. Eventually the courts ruled against them, and there was a boom of competition. Open systems are good for fostering competition and limiting monopoly power, and we have history to show that.

We’re seeing the boom already, even while we watch the incumbent powers and the new heavyweights duke it out in court (and not just in the market). I think open will win unless the courts intervene in favor of closed systems. That would be a tragedy.

1 That I even have to clarify that I’m talking about a real, not virtual or online, store is a sign of how far we’ve come.

2 Apple runs a “Made For iPhone/iPod/iPad” (MFi) program and you’re required to join (and pay license fees) if you want to connect using the dock connector. Sources: 1 2

3 Alternative web browsers are not permitted unless they are WebKit wrappers (Chrome for iOS) or don’t run JavaScript (Opera Mini).

4 Apple blocked Google Voice. Source

5 Apple blocked apps that act as AirPlay receivers. Source

6 Apple banned DUI checkpoint apps. Source

7 Apple banned an app by Mark Fiore (a Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist) because it criticized public figures. They later reconsidered and approved the app. Source

8 Apple banned Phone Story, a game critical of mobile device manufacturing practices. Source

9 From Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, widely quoted elsewhere such as Cult of Mac

10 “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this. … I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong.” Source

11 Jobs’s argument that it is a stolen product is pretty arrogant considering how much Apple has copied over the years, including from Android.

12 Apple v. Samsung, Apple v. HTC

13 Firefox has already confirmed they will not be permitted to release a browser for Windows RT. Source

14 Mandatory for ARM-based Windows RT. Source

15 An argument in favor of this can be found at Ars Technica.

16 This wasn’t the only solution available to RedHat, but they were pragmatic enough to state that their users would be very confused by any of the alternative processes. Source

17 Symbian and Blackberry are on the way out and while Bada may yet beat Windows Phone, I’m not ready yet to call it relevant. Wikipedia charts of worldwide smartphone sales

18 AT&T required the HTC One X bootloader to be locked. Source

19 AT&T and Verizon required locked bootloaders on the Samsung Galaxy S3. Sources: 1 2

20 AT&T eventually stopped doing this in 2011. Source

21 AT&T blames Google; Google says “nuh-uh!” Source

22 Android 4.0, “Ice Cream Sandwich,” finally includes the ability to remove such bloatware in a way that OEMs and carriers can’t disable. Source

23 The Kindle Fire, in case you weren’t sure what I was talking about. Locked bootloader, no alternative app store.

24 Time Warner’s app only supports watching live TV on non-rooted devices. Source

Photo Credits: today’s bread and circuses: Damien Jones