Leaping into the Lion's den


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Those who learn history may help us avoid it, but sometimes, the details escape prediction. When I interviewed Jason Scott for Computerworld, I asked him about closed systems like Facebook and the iPad. His response:

People think Facebook is an unstoppable juggernaut … and we have to fight, because if we don't, it'll always be like this … It's really bad to flip out, as if this were life and death. We're doing the same thing with the iPad, all this crapola of closed system vs open system, with people rooting for companies like they're sports teams. At the same time there was the Altair and the Atari 800 and the Apple II, we still had the Atari 2600 and the NES — two completely closed systems that worked dependably. We lived with it, it was fine, and now they're gone and there are other things. So yeah, Facebook is pretty terrible with privacy, and I'm bothered by the number of people who happily defend ease over freedom, but Facebook won't survive more than another five years in their current form. You won't recognize them in five years, they'll be something completely different. They can't survive as they are. Look at MySpace or Friendster or Orkut. There's a lot of space in the ecosystem. I'm not too worried. We won't even be thinking about it by October.

If Scott was referring to Facebook, then he may've been right, as there hasn't been nearly as much discussion about the social network's privacy controls lately as there was in the spring. But if he meant the iPad, well — I guess he didn't see Lion coming.

Apple's next Macintosh operating system will feature an inbuilt App Store, similar to what iTunes already offers for iOS devices. Already, alarmists are asking: is this the end of the Mac as an open platform?

I don't believe it is, but Apple isn't alone in moving toward more closed architectures — almost everything today's consumer uses is meant to be used as its designer intended. This approach may be more elegant for the end user, but it's also more restrictive, prohibiting innovative workflows and custom solutions to individual problems. At KansasFest 2010, I moderated a panel on this very topic, after being inspired by an article Ivan Drucker wrote for Juiced.GS.

Closed systems aren't just frustrating for end users. Such proprietary natures discourage curiosity and learning — essential skills for any future programmer or artist, as recently noted by Wil Wheaton in a Geek a Week podcast interview (time indices 16:21–19:36). The former Star Trek star reminisced about fiddling with shortwave radios and how easy it was for kids to take things apart and learn how they worked. "It's a shame that so many things are so closed down and locked down these days," said Wheaton. "That kid that 25 years ago would be inspired by reverse-engineering a game on their Apple IIe is going to have a lot more difficult time doing the same thing today."

The emergent popularity of computer science has given many more students and at many more ages the opportunity to learn computer programming, but those formal structures are far different from the self-taught programmers of a previous generation who could LIST their favorite software, study it, and even modify it. Doing so on a modern Mac is already nearly impossible, and I don't see the Mac App Store worsening the situation. But it does suggest a continuing formalization of the relationship between vendor and user, and a further demarcation between user and programmer.

The year 2010 began with the unveiling of the Apple iPad and ended with the potential diminishment of the Mac as an open platform. Neither digital historian nor Starfleet ensign can see the future these announcements will usher.