Battle For the Internet

The Guardian have been running a series all week entitled; ‘Battle for the internet‘, taking a look at the new frontiers of the web. So far the most interesting article posted in the series focused on ‘walled gardens’ – closed computer hardware (mainly Apple’s new stable of mobile products) with restricted operability. That is, a growing range of devices such as the iPad that limit user ability to dig down into code, run non-authorised software, or curate their own, self-verified programs.

The fulcrum of the piece was the antagonism between ‘generative’ devices (those that can be programmed to do more than they were set-up to do) and ‘reductive’ devices (as above, those that limit/deny programmability by the user). Mobile smartphones, by and large, fall into the latter category. Jonathan Zittrain‘s book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (2008) shapes this argument.

The obvious question, then, if mobile smartphones are results of a ‘tethering’ process (Zittrain 2008) designed to limit program operability to those screened and sold through App stores or other similar marketplaces, is; why is this necessary? What do smartphone manufacturer’s have to gain from, in effect, reducing their product’s usability? And, does this reduce a product’s value?

Of course, it’s easy to simply say this is a case of Apple (and others) wanting to profit from their own success. The brand itself has swollen in worth, even since the mid-noughties, and despite Steve Job’s death remains a technological powerhouse. It’s App Store – combined with its iPad – represents the frontier of it’s business currently. In securitizing the use of the latter through the former, Apple have bricked up large swathes of internet usage behind its rather menacing walls. In operating with such impunity, Apple have managed to attain a level of online policing unknown to, or uncharacteristic of Western democracies, and much more akin to online modus operandi of the Chinese Communist Party, Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party or Iranian Government. This – rather than mere profit – becomes a greater concern for global web usage.

There’s also a great quote from journalist and author, John Battelle on the ‘unstoppable’ mobile nature of the web:

“The PC-based HTML web is hopelessly behind mobile in any number of ways,” he [Battelle] wrote on his blog. “It has no eyes (camera), no ears (audio input), no sense of place (GPS/location data). Why would anyone want to invest in a web that’s deaf, dumb, blind, and stuck in one place?”

Whilst the quote itself draws on the hapless PC to elucidate the absurdity of a ‘non-sensing’ platform (slow, clunky, vulnerable, flawed), on the whole, the article lauds it as some sort of biblical feature pre-dating the narrowed confines of web 2.0. Of course, this is doubly untrue. Firstly, the PC-based HTML web can indeed sense in all the noted ways. It still has eyes (web-cams), ears and a sense of place (however fixed and immobile).  And secondly, the continued investment in mobile technology (aka web 2.0) is predicated on open, expansive, experiences. Only Apple and other pretenders seem to gain from the walled garden effect. The challenge, like Zittrain notes, is to traverse these boundaries in ways that cast open the future of the web.