The freedom to use crap

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The FSF wants you to avoid the iPhone 3G in favour of OpenMoko Neo FreeRunner.

Some of the FSF's points have merit, but some are outright deceptive - for example that the iPhone exposes your whereabouts without your knowledge. It doesn't; in fact it always pops up with a confirmation before accessing the "location services", whether GPS or cell-tower triangulation. And you can turn it off through a global setting.

The biggest joke is the alternative. Freedom to modify and tinker and extend means little when the basis is barely useable. People will often tradeoff one freedom for another freedom. A more usable device arguably is just another form of freedom -- from hassle, annoyance, and wasted time.

Open source makes economic sense in many contexts, but I think they're at least 10 years away from even denting the mainstream in this market. Which is why, BTW, I think the FSF is targeting the iPhone. The iPhone represents a refutation to the idea that open, free, collaboration will necessarily lead to better products, and that proprietary software makers cannot compete.

The OpenMoko counter-argument is "give it time, in the long run, it will win". And look, in a way, I hope so. Using the iPhone is a great case of following Keynes' adage, in the long run, we are all dead., where we optimize for short term gratification at the expense of our future. By using the iPhone, we're supporting and contributing something that doesn't build something open for our collective future, but instead leases our future over to Apple. On the other hand, the iPhone does represent something that is important to our future -- the triumph of entrepreneurship over bureaucrats and technocrats. More on that in a moment.

I'll note that the economic angle isn't usually the FSF's preferred line of argument. It's more the OSI's tactic, though the FSF has certainly referenced it. On the other hand, the FSF argues for free software from an ethical stance. Without getting into the muck, my opinion basically is that the sort of freedom the FSF advocates is not, IMO, political freedom, and thus I don't consider it sacred. Whether one chooses to be imprisoned by license is an economic tradeoff, not capitulation to evil. I believe the author should have the option to retain certain limited rights, for a limited time, over its users. I believe in entrepreneurship and the Schumpeterian model of the economy. Profits should go to the innovators for a limited time, as profit is the source of tomorrow's jobs and developments.

The iPhone represents a triumph of entrepreneurship -- the Cathedral over the Bazaar. The user experience loosens the telecom bureaucrat's insistence on device control, or the technocrat's desire for infinite options. The rules of bazaar development are flipped: Scratch the user's itch, not the developer's. Release "when it's ready", not early. Users are not co-developers, and developers aren't even co-developers, they're cordoned off into their controlled area for the sake of the user experience.

But wait, several complications to this picture:

- Open source is not incompatible with entrepreneurship. The Mozilla Foundation demonstrates this regularly with Firefox. OTOH, the market dynamics of browsers imply that there's not a lot of money to be made through direct distribution. Moz is funded largely by complementary product placement: redirecting searches to Google.

- The iPhone OS X already uses plenty of open source: its web browser is open source, as is much of its operating system layer (including both BSD and GPLv2 code). They're both complex, mature areas of computing, where it's (again) hard to declare some kind of "secret sauce" that needs protection. So it is a great place for open source collaboration.

- Apple is exceptional in its ability to successfully deliver great software and build a thriving community with a cathedral model. Most aren't. Though, looking through Freshmeat, I'm not sure the ability to build solid software with a thriving community is intrinsic to either model. It's just hard to do.

One perspective is that the architecture of a project likely has more to do with its success, quoting Roy Fielding:


In spite of the hype and hysteria surrounding open source software development, there is very little that can be said of open source in general. Open source projects range in scope from the miniscule, such as the thousands of non-maintained code dumps left behind at the end of class projects, dissertations, and failed commercial ventures, to the truly international, with thousands of developers collaborating, directly or indirectly, on a common platform. One characteristic that is shared by the largest and most successful open source projects, however, is a software architecture designed to promote anarchic collaboration through extensions while at the same time preserving centralized control over the interfaces.

Which may bode well for Apple's approach to applications.

- Apple also has found a "secret sauce" that free software rarely measures up to: usability and aesthetics. "Taste" is a hard thing to replicate, especially when it's delivered as a tight coupling between software and hardware.

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7 Comments

There are a few more entities than just "Apple" that have the secret sauce, Stuart.

It's called the IDEA design awards, and there are many design bureaus the world over that forward usability & aesthetic paradigms within their field.

And please, a device with no copy/paste support and an imprecise keyboard != the pinnacle of usability. Your comment posting on SJ's blog prove that :).

Also there is nothing "Anarchic" about making US customers go in-person to purchase what is mobile internet device while Europeans can order online.

Add that the SDK restrictions on what you can & cannot build + the iPhone App Store being the only channel + the need to have iTunes to manage it + the jailbreak nonsense. Unless ofcourse, in your perspective that's the uniform interface working in Apple's favor.

What's the point of operating on Global Service Mobile (GSM) bands if you have to affiliate with carriers & contracts? Is Apple so paranoid about consumer loyalty that the only way forward for it is a 2-year contract? If people want subsidies, let them choose to get into a contract. If they want total freedom - they shouldn't have to pay 3x for it.

Aesthetics, I agree; Apple has it in the bag. However, I do think Sony, RIM & Nokia can match them on the overall execution front and release cohesive mobile experiences for the consumer.

In summary, I am all for the Cathedral prevailing over the Bazaar because it generally is good for the world. However, once the Cathedral is done with its creation, let the Bazaar decide. There's more upside economically that way for everyone.

I am not convinced that Apple is going to reach 15 million iPhone 3Gs by Jan 2009, even with the 1st million taking 3 days.

They would have easily blown by that mark with a more open policy where if a user had access to a 3G connection, SMS+Data plan -> they should be able to use my iphone however I please and would have no issue paying for iApps even if iTunes was the only way to serve them.

I think Nokia will be the first to crack this nut. They may not always be first-movers, they may not always have the best software or user experience - but they do understand consumer choice is left to the consumer.

Stuart,

:)

"Let them eat cake" is the perspective I get from Apple, and clearly you belong in the Queen's court.

If you notice, my post does refer to the SDK as part of my "there is nothing anarchic" rant. You state there are good reasons for Apple to have enforced the restrictions they have - please elaborate, I'd be interested to know :).

Back to the contracts -> I can walk up to a Nokia store just now in NYC and get a E61 or N95 unlocked with no contract. You can pay $400-700 depending on how fresh the phone is. I am sure the new E71 is going to be $500-600. So "that's how it is" is not how it is.

Additionally, my comment about pricing wasn't about fairness - it was about how Apple missed a trick. The first iPod took 2 years to sell a million units. The first iPhone 74 days. This one took 3 days.

Only time will tell, but it feels like a "too cold", "too hot" scenario. The fact that more people have gone for the 16gb model @ 2:1 ratio (Piper Jafray survey) should tell you that ATT over subsidized the phone. And by that inference, Apple didn't need ATT as much because it could have gotten away with a higher charge.

So I guess what I am saying is, the first time they were too rigid with ATT and now they are too bowed. And due to this bowing, they have sacrificed the customer experience and whether they like it or not - they now have a more conventional customer vs. a classic Apple customer which is loyal to the core.

I admit the 15M number is uncited, but Apple doesn't appear to differentiate between the 1.0 and 3G editions when it comes to their 10M target. So I assumed 10M 3Gs + whatever 1.0 inventory they sold since hitting the million mark in Sept 2007...

So, to distill this exchange down:

I agree that a uniform interface coupled with anarchic extensibility yields vivid worlds full of value.

I agree that the internet & successful open source projects are a result of this dichotomy. Nature sort of is too :). Both Fielding & the great Charles Simonyi share this perspective as do many others.

I disagree that Apple iPhone is successful because of the anarchic extensibility its SDK provides.
They are successful because they have a strong brand, solid execution & one amazing Pope in that Cathedral of theirs.

Do you own a PSP? If you saw their technical execution on that device - you wouldn't doubt for a second that Sony could put the hammer down if it focused. The problem is that their mobile forays have been marred in the past - their alliances with Ericsson & Siemens haven't worked out well.

I share your interest in seeing how the industry plays out in the next three years.

I don't know if you read the jKonTheRun blog but there are reports of a number of undercooked applications being released by the channel causing iPhones to reboot incessantly.

Additionally, users have also noticed that applications don't actually close when "close" is clicked. Apparently it keeps running in the background like WinMo. I can't vouch for this until I get my own 3G.

Agree with you that Apple's steps "bode well" for the future. This exchange has been fun, looking forward to more in the future!

"Do you own a PSP? If you saw their technical execution on that device - you wouldn't doubt for a second that Sony could put the hammer down if it focused. The problem is that their mobile forays have been marred in the past - their alliances with Ericsson & Siemens haven't worked out well."

This is the same PSP that has been continually replaced in our house, whose browser is one of the worst ever conceived, whose game carts are difficult to clean, whose lens is even more so, whose thumb button falls off, whose lid mechanism is absurdly fragile, whose films are absurdly priced?

You'll have to do much better than *that*.

Bill,

I am no Sony fanboi, but let me elaborate:

Until the PSP in 2003, no manufacturer put serious gaming graphics in such a tiny package. The GameBoy Advance is NOT a testament to graphical prowess - I am sure you will agree. Neither is the N-Gage ;).

Additionally, the screen was world-class when it was introduced. And remains one of the best today.

UMD was a dumb idea. As for the buttons falling off, I had no issues with mine, neither does my nephew who owns and uses the same one since he inherited it. I have never purchased or played a UMD movie on my machine. Gaming is what it was built for and that it does extremely well.

I never claimed that the PSP was a mobile internet device or for business use in any way! I prefer my Nokia N800 in that context.

The point I was trying to make was simple: Sony has the potential to put out an iPhone rival. I don't know if you remember back in the late 90s, but Sony used to actually make cell phones on the GSM band... one of them was called the Z10. That phone was the first to use the click-scroll concept that Crackberry users used to enjoy (RIM is discontinuing it now). That was a decade ago.

Their e-Book reader is an IDEA 2008 design winner. Neither are the VAIO laptops bad...

Hope this helps clear things up!


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This page contains a single entry by Stu published on July 20, 2008 12:08 PM.

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