The rainforrest will dry out if you don’t let it grow into the open

The Apple iPad

Everyone is talking about Steven Johnson piece in the New York Times titled Rethinking a Gospel of the Web. Steven Johnson a very good author of some fine books and clever guy generally, is starting to question if open platforms is not a technological-utopianism.

FOR about a decade now, ever since it became clear that the jungle of the World Wide Web would triumph over the walled gardens of CompuServe, AOL and MSN, a general consensus has solidified among the otherwise fractious population of People Who Think Big Thoughts About the Internet.

That unifying creed is this: Open platforms promote innovation and diversity more effectively than proprietary ones.

In the words of one of the Web’s brightest theorists, Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard, the Web displays the “generative” power of a platform where you don’t have to ask permission to create and share new ideas. If you want democratic media, where small, innovative start-ups can compete with giant multinationals, open platforms are the way to go.

I’ve long considered myself a believer in this gospel and have probably written a hundred pages of book chapters, essays and blog posts spreading the word. Believing in open platforms is not simple techno-utopianism. Open platforms come with undeniable costs. The Web is rife with pornography and vitriol for the very same reasons it’s so consistently ingenious. It’s not that the Web is perfect, by any means, but as an engine of innovation and democratization, its supremacy has been undeniable.

Over the last two years, however, that story has grown far more complicated, thanks to the runaway success of the iPhone (and now iPad) developers platform — known as the App Store to consumers.

He then lists what he sees as the successes of the appstore, iphone platform.

More than 150,000 applications have been created for it in less than two years, transforming the iPhone into an e-book reader, a flight control deck, a musical instrument, a physician’s companion, a dictation device and countless other things that were impossible just 24 months ago.

Hold on a second, this is also true of other platforms like windows mobile. Yes there hasn’t been 150k of apps but I’ve seen all type of things developers for windows mobile have done.

The decision to route all purchases through a single payment mechanism makes great sense for Apple, which takes 30 percent of all sales, but it has also helped nurture the ecosystem by making it easier for consumers to buy small apps impulsively with one-click ordering.

Agreed but I think a open system could also have benefited some very interesting payment and delivery models. Up till recently Bluetooth transfering of apps and media was huge but with the apps store everything has to go through a central server, how else will apple get there 30%?

And I think this is the point, an open system gives you the freedom to get really creative.

Apple could certainly quiet a lot of its critics by creating some kind of side door that enables developers to bypass the App Store if they wish. An overwhelming majority of developers and consumers would continue to use the store, retaining all the benefits of that closed system, but a secondary market could develop where more experimental ideas could flourish.

But whatever Apple chooses to do with its platform in the coming years, it has made one thing clear: sometimes, if you get the conditions right, a walled garden can turn into a rain forest.

I will be the first to admit Apple have done a good job with the illusion of freedom, its a bit like dark city where people forget there is a daytime and how to get to shell beach. Few people rub against the sides of the rain forrest or the dark city. However this illusion is only sustainable for so long.

Even those who bought ipads and tried to use them on the way home noticed the lack of ability to be used till synced with itunes on a laptop. Theres also something Apple did in there recent announcement about iphone software v4 development. New iPhone Developer Agreement Bans the Use of anything but there own software to build software for the appstore.

Applications may only use Documented APIs in the manner prescribed by Apple and must not use or call any private APIs. Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript as executed by the iPhone OS WebKit engine, and only code written in C, C++, and Objective-C may compile and directly link against the Documented APIs (e.g., Applications that link to Documented APIs through an intermediary translation or compatibility layer or tool are prohibited).

So something like Adobe’s Flash-to-iPhone Compiler is completely out the window. As you can imagine this has outraged developers and pissing off developers. This has to be like poking in the eye of each one of the great apes, its just not what you want in a rainforrest, unless you want chaos. Or back to the darkcity analogy, John Smith is working things out. And finally Apple’s idea of one device for everyone is now just a theory,

The fact that the iPhone platform runs exclusively on Apple hardware helps developers innovate, because it means they have a finite number of hardware configurations to surmount. Developers building apps for, say, Windows Mobile have to create programs that work on hundreds of different devices, each with its own set of hardware features. But a developer who wants to build a game that uses an accelerometer for control, for example, knows that every iPhone OS device in the world contains an accelerometer.

The iphone 3GS has different features to the ipod touch 2nd generation. Not only that but some generations will now have the iphone 4th generation software with all those extra apis and older phones wont. Same for the ipod touch, some will some won’t. Throw in a ipad with its already different screen size, cpu, etc then give it different software based on when the upgrade comes out in the world. Yes this is sounding a lot closer to the Windows Mobile world than Steve Jobs would care to admit. From my understanding by Christmas this year, there will be 2 types of iphones running v4 software, ipod wise, 1 v4 and 1 v3. throw in a Ipad and who knows what happens when the Apple TV joins in on the fun? Theres no doubt that Apple will tie the AppleTV to the rainforrest in someway and apps will make it on the platform at some point. Goodness knows what specs and capabilities that device will have, lets alone what software platform?

Nope shame on you Steve Johnson for falling for this trap (its a trap!) Open systems are better, there just unpredictable and when your worried about the stock price, this is would be off putting.

Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard and the book I’ve been shouting about the future of the internet is right, the Web does display the “generative” power of a platform where you don’t have to ask permission to create and share new ideas. If you want democratic media, where small, innovative start-ups can compete with giant multinationals, open platforms are the way to go.

Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.