Friday, February 3, 2012

Can an Apple addict be an advocate for openness?

Can an Apple addict be an advocate for openness?

That's the sobering question I ask myself today. This comes in the wake of challenging students in our Digital Civilization class to be more critical about the open movement (we have been studying openness in its many exciting varieties this week).

I have found students too easily agreeing with open science, open government, open source software -- as though openness were a self-evident truth that the founding fathers overlooked in the Constitution; as though openness were a techno-utopian condition that only morons or devils would disagree with.

Frankly, some of the advocates for openness play the devil rather well. (I get uneasy when I find myself on the same side as that Anonymous group, even just a little.) When openness becomes a kind of irresponsible liberalism or the toy of anarchists, it starts to lose its shine. And despite my own strong statements in its favor, I must admit that openness can't just be about rapacious publishers too benighted to understand the virtues of open access, or about venal congressmen and MPAA lawyers coming down on life-as-we-know-it-online with ham-fisted censorship legislation. SOPA was wrong; does that make all openness right?

Time for some soul searching. "Okay, Gideon," I asked myself, "where are you truly committed to a closed or restricted system? Where is it that you are most hypocritical when trumpeting openness?"

True Confession of an Apple Addict
My pumpkin creation this year.
I had no further to look than at the iPhone in my hand, or the iPad in my lap, or at this lovely 27" iMac upon which I'm typing. I've downloaded over hundreds of apps to my iOS devices, of which a score have become integral parts of my day. I am a happy denizen of Steve Jobs' walled garden. I am an Apple addict. I carved an Apple-themed pumpkin for Halloween, for crying out loud!

Apple is many things, but one thing it is not is open. Its operating system, iOS, is not open source software; iTunes tracks are not DRM-free; and now (to the consternation of many) even the new iBooks authoring software requires one to use Apple's iBookstore if you want to sell the eBooks you make on their free-with-strings-attached software. And if you are a developer? Forget open if you want to sell an app through Apple. One must pay $100/year to be a developer, then apply to have an app approved for inclusion in the app store, and there are many frightening stories of the slowness and crazy procedures of running that gauntlet. Many developers have abandoned making iOS apps so that they can participate in the truly open Android marketplace.

All of Apple's restrictive practices make you want to jail-break your iPhone just to stick it to the man. The Apple man. Only that would be very hard to do because I really really admire Steve Jobs, and St. Steve just ascended to heaven, anyway. To the contrary, I have dreamed of a new business model for Apple: the "subscribed" customer. Basically, I'm willing to commit a monthly fee to Apple that I could apply to whatever iProduct might come out in the near future. Why haven't they thought of this? Why don't they capitalize even more on those of us who have already sold our souls to the Great Fruit of Felicitous Design?

Walking in a Walled Garden
Apple has created the consummate "walled garden." Are you familiar with that metaphor? It refers to when a company retains tight control over media or services. The "wall" part is the control; the "garden" part is that all that control has produced a rather lovely place to be. Lots of us have found Apple's orchard to be more than a happy place. Their stuff is shiny, well designed, and it works. And it's fun to be part of the club, frankly. You also have an iPhone / iPad / iPod / iMac? Hey, I'm a Mac, too!

So, is the Apple walled garden paradise, or prison? Have I, like mother Eve, bitten the apple and thereby have fallen into a world of danger? Will Apple turn into Microsoft and be subject to anti-trust suits? Will it become a media mogul like Disney and rule our world? Maybe the better question is this: Does Apple's closed model help or hinder innovation? Ah, that's a question. A very good question.

Creativity and the Closed Model
Sometimes, the way to be open is to be closed. (Did I just say that? Sounds like one of those wicked slogans from Orwell's 1984.) Let me explain, using Apple's app store as an example. One of the reasons that Apple hardware and software is so successful is because of its attractive design and ease of use. By requiring developers to follow their rules and go through an approval process, Apple ends up guaranteeing more uniformity for user experience. For example, an app will not be approved if it tries to use some wild menu system or navigation that is inconsistent with Apple's design guidelines. Is this something that reduces creative liberty? Maybe. But it also guarantees that most users will be able to learn and enjoy a new app precisely because they have used other apps that follow consistencies that Apple requires. That's a win for developers and users alike. They can then leverage to their advantage all of the experience that users have had with other apps that cooperate within the same set of rules.

The Android app store has a completely open policy. Has this improved innovation and creativity? It may, in fact, in the long run. But in the short run, the fact that developers can customize Android to specific devices has resulted in a lot of apps sold on that store that will only work on one piece of hardware. That would be frustrating if you had an Android phone but couldn't run Android apps on it. And the lack of any quality control screening has created a lot of angry customers who buy apps that constantly crash or that underperform. To be sure, there are many sub-par apps on the Apple app store, but users are less likely to be frustrated by the inconsistencies and chaos of a completely open system.

There is a principle very familiar to artists, writers, and musicians of "liberating form." The paradox is that the tight rules of a sonnet, or a sonata, or a given genre in any medium allow for creativity precisely because of the consistency (and even the difficulty) of their required forms. All artistic conventions are restrictions; but that is something we end up celebrating. It is often the lack of conventions or standards that detracts from creativity and innovation. Progress requires order. Those of us with strong religious convictions recognize God's commandments as similarly liberating. It takes work not to lie, or give in to temptations. But obeying those constraints frees me from larger ones.

If you throw the doors wide open anywhere, you invite anarchy. Anarchy is just as bad as completely locked down control (and often leads to it, as the Reign of Terror flowed from the over-openness of the French Revolution). But if you provide structure that can then become a catalyst to creativity, you've found the golden mean. That sweet spot isn't always easy to find, and frankly it can shift over time (I am more confident in Android's open system in the long haul, more skeptical of it in the near term). But it does no good to make sweeping generalizations about freedoms being threatened whenever any control or restriction is in place. If you think about it, any kind of order is a kind of control; any kind of structure can seem restrictive. It all boils down to the details of what structures in what context provide a means for creativity and innovation to flourish; and which structures prove deadening to the advancement of knowledge, or art, or commerce, or government.

I hope I have not muddied the waters with this. If anything, these arguments require us to be very keen judges of how and when open or restricted models advance or retard the goals that we have. And in an environment that is so much in flux -- a defining mode of digital civilization, really -- restricted might be as vital at one point as openness is the next.

I'm reminded of Edmund Burke, the 18th Century statesman, who seemed to be the patron of liberty when he argued in the British parliament on behalf of the freedom of the American colonies. And then, just a few short years later, he wrote a definitive statement on conservatism, roundly condemning the French Revolution. He was accused of inconsistency. "When the ship lists to starboard," he said, "I run to port; when it lists to port, I run to starboard." Maybe we will have to be like Burke and be ready to defend restricted systems that appear to sacrifice liberty when long-term openness could be threatened by too much openness in the short run.