A week to reflect on openness versus walled gardens

Eternal Flame

I was not going to mention the sad early departure of Steve Jobs, the media and the blogosphere are already saturated with coverage of his death. Of all the words uttered in the last few days, I think that xkcd’s tribute (pictured) is the most adequate. The coverage has been incredibly over the top in most instances. I have to admit that the tone has left me rather baffled, almost thinking that I am missing an important clue, or perhaps that I was born without the empathy gene. I don’t think that Mr Jobs made the world more beautiful, was a muse, or that he shaped or changed my life. He might have changed some business practices, but reports that he changed capitalism are wildly exaggerated. Presented with such barrage of praise, satire may be the only refuge, and The Onion expresses exactly how I felt by commenting that it was as if some people had lost their father.

However, on the other side the reaction has been insensitive at best, and perhaps even rather ugly. Richard Stallman has been making the rounds in the blogosphere as he posted a rather tactless comment about Steve jobs.

“Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.
As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt former Mayor Daley, “I’m not glad he’s dead, but I’m glad he’s gone.” Nobody deserves to have to die – not Jobs, not Mr. Bill, not even people guilty of bigger evils than theirs. But we all deserve the end of Jobs’ malign influence on people’s computing.
Unfortunately, that influence continues despite his absence. We can only hope his successors, as they attempt to carry on his legacy, will be less effective.”

I think that the above quote was insensitive and needlessly harsh. Several people have jumped to Stallman’s defence, in some cases, with laughable and over the top accounts of their own. Although I share some of the sentiment expressed by Stallman, I cannot condone the way in which it was written. Nonetheless, one thing is clear, Apple inspires strong sentiments in the tech community. From cult-like status to unequivocal declaration of evil, there is little middle ground when it comes to Jobs.

The reason for such polarisation of opinions is perhaps the very same reason we have been observing a battle for the direction in which technology in general, and the Internet in particular, are heading. Those who tend to be against Jobs and are willing to decry his legacy are the advocates of openness, while his staunchest defenders are the utilitarians, those who are less concerned with the freedom to tinker and more with the look and feel of their devices. Needless to say, these two positions are incompatible with one another.

This is an important debate. Apple has been pushing a business model based on locking-in its customers, so you will live your life within the gated community of iTunes, iPod and iPad. Interoperability is at the bottom of the priority list, just think how we have become used to having our music lists locked into one gadget, and how difficult it is to have the same versions of your music in different devices. Apple treats us like children, and naughty children at that. We are penned in for our own good.

My two favourite pieces of the last week are both complimentary and critical, perhaps reflecting the duality of the Apple experience. Mike Daisey wrote in the New York Times:

“Mr. Jobs’s magic has its costs. We can admire the design perfection and business acumen while acknowledging the truth: with Apple’s immense resources at his command he could have revolutionized the industry to make devices more humanely and more openly, and chose not to. If we view him unsparingly, without nostalgia, we would see a great man whose genius in design, showmanship and stewardship of the tech world will not be seen again in our lifetime. We would also see a man who in the end failed to “think different,” in the deepest way, about the human needs of both his users and his workers. “

And Eric Raymond wrote in his blog:

“Commerce is powerful, but culture is even more persistent. The lure of high profits from secrecy rent can slow down the long-term trend towards open source and user-controlled computing, but not really stop it. Jobs’s success at hypnotizing millions of people into a perverse love for the walled garden is more dangerous to freedom in the long term than Bill Gates’s efficient but brutal and unattractive corporatism. People feared and respected Microsoft, but they love and worship Apple – and that is precisely the problem, precisely the reason Jobs may in the end have done more harm than good.”

I hope that the death of Steve Jobs gives us the chance to think more about these important points. We are learning a lot about the power of marketing, showmanship and design. People do not want freedom and openness, they want shiny devices that work adequately. Unless we understand this very important concept, open source is doomed to irrelevancy.

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