Thursday, July 15, 2010
The Applet Enclosure
Michael Hirschorn (with whom I went to high school way back when) is getting a lot of flak among the techo-libertarians for his untimely prediction in The Atlantic of the death of the Web browser and its replacement by the commercial "app." Setting aside the details of his claims (about the monthly fees for iPads, and so on), his polemic is clearly on the right track: Apple wants to find a way to carve out a more controlled corner of infospace and to present this corner as a premium realm for commercial content. The odd paradox of Apple is that, on the one hand, it has always been the "cooler" tech choice thanks to the premium it has placed on design and its success in developing cleaner, more intuitive hardware and software. On the other hand, however, it has always been the more oppressively controlling company -- not because Microsoft is any more benign and open -- but because Apple realized the importance of hardware and, in particular, of developing a seamlessly linked hardware-software system. I've always understood the appeal of iPods -- they're well designed, easy to operate and work better than any other MP3 player I've tried. But I never actually bought one because the way I use my MP3 player -- constantly downloading podcasts and moving from computer to computer, carrying my music files with me and changing them frequently -- is just too hard to do on such a tightly controlled device. Other MP3 players allow me to get music that has been obtained in different ways (ripping CDs, downloading, recording from streams) from different machines and to move, update and re-arrange without any hassle. Whether nor not Steve Jobs will succeed in creating a tightly controlled, proprietary commercial alternative remains to be seen -- whether this is something he wants to create, however, is beyond doubt. Which is not to say that the commercial alternative -- a monitoring-based, data-mined world of increasingly targeted advertising is necessarily any better. It will have its own costs. Again, I think Michael gets it right when he makes the comparison between the Google/Apple paradigm opposition and that between ranchers and farmers on the open frontier: they are both economic-driven commercial models. They are alternative ways of making money.