Mediocrity and the future of the Internet

The Future of the InternetWe were lucky enough to have the author of “The Future of the Internet… and how to stop it”, Jonathan Zittrain, speak at an event recently at work. His core argument was that we are returning to the situation at the very start of the computer age where computers were essentially closed shops where you had to work in a specific way defined by the machine or operating system rather than having any real freedom to work how you want. Today’s computers and devices are moving away from the open operating systems that have ruled for the last decade (essentially Windows / Mac) that allowed you to do whatever you wanted at the cost of instability and insecurity. (Note: what follows is based on what the presentation covered – I haven’t read the book.)

He points out that the new devices, such as the American digital video recorder Tivo, Sky+ and the iPhone, do what they do well but the companies that make them exert a power over them even when the consumer owns it, and whilst this can be good for the consumer (they get a device that is designed for a specific purpose and does it really well) it can be very dangerous.

His main example is the iPhone (and this is timed nicely, with the recent announcement of the new 3G iPhone and the soon to arrive iPhone 2.0 operating system which offers the opportunity to buy applications and a lot more.) Here’s a bit of history (from me): the first version was tied to a specific mobile network (AT&T in the US, O2 in the UK) but people soon could “jailbreak” the phone so that you could use whatever network you wanted and install unsanctioned 3rd party apps. Apple remained largely silent on the matter (this would sell more iPhones?) until one software update essentially “bricked” many phones that had been altered. Not all were affected and many people had to remain on an early version of the operating system if they did not take the risk. It is not really clear if Apple did this on purpose or not.

He gave other examples of devices that could be manipulated by their manufacturer even though it was in a consumer’s home, often to comply with the outcome of a lawsuit. This could change or reduce the functionality of the device to the point that it may no longer do what you wanted it for in the first place.

So the question raises itself – is it better to have something that is buggy and open to abuse but gives you the freedom to do whatever you want or is it better to live in a walled garden (such as iPod / iPhone’s reliance on being used with iTunes software and the iTunes Store which download songs and more that can only be played on an Apple device) which delivers a reliable device that does what it does incredibly well?

I believe that part of this is due to a device that appears and is so far ahead of the competition that it changes the game. iPod / iPhone allows you to take your digital life on the road – in a way that is miles ahead of any other smartphone / media player on the market. No wonder people go for it – it does what people want to do and does it in style – and it can keep up with trends and add features so that people believe that they are getting a better experience and fuctionality than they originally paid for.

This situation is possible because all other products are so mediocre. If other companies could keep up in their particular field (eg Microsoft Zune as competition for the iPod, Sony Walkman mobile phones) and come up with a compelling device that matches functionality and elegance, then one company would not be able to exert such a controlling influence. One example: Apple may have been forced to open up it’s music files from the iTunes Store so that they play on other devices.

The bottom line is that if all companies delivered a product that met people’s needs at the right price then the subsequent competition would keep things open. Living in a walled garden is fine if it represents 80% of the market and all your friends are in there with you. It’s not so much fun if the garden is only 15% of the market and you can’t do what you want with your friends because systems are incompatible. You wouldn’t stand for it.

So, if you want to change the future of the internet, tell the industry that you are interested in to get it’s finger out and do something great (not just good) for a change.

The Future of the Internet

• You can download the book in PDF format here (relax, it’s free and legal.) The author has released the book under a Creative Commons licence. (Note, if you meet him, he will only sign copies of the real book, not a printed out copy!)

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