Should Apple Open up, and What Does Liberty Have to Do With It
Electronic Frontier Foundation just posted an article discussing “Apple’s Crystal Prison and The Future of Open Platforms” in which they characterize Apple’s and Microsoft’s restrictive policies as affronts on users freedom, and call on Apple to lead the way by aligning with Steve Wozniak’s call for Apple to open up.
They also outline a “bill of rights” outlining four rights they believe mobile computer owners should enjoy.
I generally support the idea of more openness in computing, but I see a couple of key issues with what they wrote.
It’s Not About Liberty
When talking about restrictions that come with devices in question they frame these restrictions as affront’s to liberty of the individuals who use these devices. This kind of tone puts restrictions in an user license agreement, and mere lack of features built into a phone on the same level as the restrictions a state might arbitrarily impose on an individual in a given country.
While this kind of rhetoric is typical for the Free Software Foundation, which is an ally of the EFF, it never really made any sense. The reason is actually quite simple. People don’t choose where they are born yet are still hit with the restrictions imposed by the state that supposedly governs a given place. This is why in that context we can talk about such restrictions as infringing on liberty.
But when it comes to digital devices we are talking about package deals that everyone can refuse if they dislike what they’re being offered. You don’t like that an iPhone lacks an option allowing installation from third party app stores? If that’s a deal breaker for you go buy an Android phone instead. Same goes for the user license agreement. If you don’t like the restrictions you have to agree with in order to use the device, you can always choose not to accept them, and just don’t buy the thing.
So how in the world is your individual liberty trampled by someone offering you a bad deal? It is not. Your liberty is intact. Liberty is not what is at stake here. It is a red herring introduced by those who wish to bring politics where it doesn’t belong, and that’s not a very honest tactic.
Openness is one thing, but liberty or freedom is another. Openness is an arguably desirable characteristic of a platform. Liberty is about the freedom to choose for yourself in any situation, and regardless of whether we’re talking about technology or something else. Liberty also cuts both ways. Business owners should be able to choose what kind of a deal they want to make you including the terms under which they want to offer it, the features that will be included, and the price of the thing. Buyers should be able to choose whether to accept such a deal or not, and whom to buy from, as they are.
When EFF and FSF talk about openness as a matter of freedom, talking about it as a “right”, they are just trying to upgrade an entitlement. Their “bill of rights” is nothing more than a wish list of features they’d like to have. It has nothing to do with rights. Mind you, the wish list is something I can get behind, and something I think might be positive for the industry at large to adopt, but its value as such does not make it into a real “bill of rights”. It is more of a “minimum openness standard”.
This to me taints their message. I reiterate that I support the idea of more openness, and I’m glad that it is being explored, but this kind of rhetoric is not the way to go about it.
Is Open Apple Possible?
Another key issue is whether it is realistic to expect the “open Apple” at this point. Frankly, the term sounds almost like an oxymoron to me. Apple is enormously successful right now just as it is. It would appear plenty of people don’t mind the closed nature of the platform so much, and that the loud complaints we keep hearing come from what is probably a vocal minority. What impetus then does Apple have to change things in this respect?
Perhaps that’s why openness advocates try so hard to make it out to be an issue of freedom. It makes Apple appear something more than just a company that offers bad deals, it makes it “evil”, and makes openness advocates into freedom fighters that ought to unshackle the poor Apple users from their crystal chains. It makes the issue into a cause for freedom.
Of course, this tactic bases itself in fantasy, and never really works. Apple will change when the market forces it to change, the market of people who already have the freedom to choose. That means that a considerable amount of people would have to stop buying Apple’s devices, just as they are, and start demanding something more open, for Apple to feel the need they need to change things. That isn’t quite happening yet.
Besides that, I think openness advocates might be underestimating the value of the closed approach Apple is taking. It is not just about higher profits specifically. Openness has its support costs. Opening up means supporting more. If users install a bad app from a third party store it is often not just that bad app that will get the flak, but iOS itself. Apple has to suddenly contend with the fact that people want to write for their OS in ways that they did not necessarily intend to, and following a standard that’s not an Apple’s standard.
Apple’s closed approach has a lot to do with their focus. Opening the floodgates means dealing with the flood, and so far Apple has preferred not to burden themselves with such a prospect, and have actually succeeded in the market regardless of making that choice.
All this said, I wouldn’t write off the possibility of Apple becoming more open, but I wouldn’t bet on it happening soon. Perhaps the market will change. Perhaps Apple falters in some way, forcing it to reconsider the openness option as a way of increasing their customer appeal. It’s just not something they need to do right now, unless they can figure out an elegant way to do this which will both broaden their appeal and minimize the costs associated with being more open.
So What About The Future of Open Platforms?
If the goal is to ensure that open platforms exist, and that they are supported by a major player, then I think a better target for the leader in this respect at this point is Google with its Android platform. It is much closer to the ideal than iOS, and Google isn’t the company that had closed ecosystems so deeply embedded into its DNA and its way of doing things like Apple did.
Of course, with Android you can target a specific high profile manufacturer as well. Since Android can be modified a given manufacturer can ensure that a particular phone fits the requirements posed in that so called “bill of rights” EFF proposes.
If EFF wants to take it even further, they could institutionalize these guidelines into a branded open mobile standard, under an open mobile foundation of a sort, which would certify devices as open mobile devices, and simultaneously educate people about why they should care about having the features these requirements call for (and no, “lacking them tramples on your freedom” wont do; just look at the success of the “open source” brand vs. the “Free (as in Libre) Software” brand).
If the goal is to get Apple to support this initiative I think a lot more understanding of what makes Apple tick is necessary. You can’t just tell Apple to open up, basically telling it to drop one of the core tenets of what makes the company and its culture work. You have to either appeal to another core tenet of Apple, or something even deeper. How can Apple become more open without sacrificing anything else that makes Apple what it is? How can Apple become more open while maintaining its current level of focus, its zen-like simplicity, and a highly curated user experience? In other words, how can Apple become more open without sacrificing all of the benefits it had by being closed?
In any case, just telling them to be more open because they are supposedly infringing on our liberty and thus essentially implying that they are acting something like a North Korean government wont work. They wont listen. I wouldn’t listen to such drivel either. Let’s get serious.