iOS Is A “Beautiful Crystal Prison” And OS X Is Becoming One

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Apple creates walled gardens, but we choose to live in them.
Apple creates walled gardens, but we choose to live in them.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has been challenging Apple to higher standards for quite some time. Carrying the slogan “defending your rights in the digital world,” the EFF frequently calls out tech companies and related policies when it thinks ramifications could be negative for consumers. The EFF challenged Apple to defend its third-party developers against the Lodsys patent troll, has repeatedly addressed the company’s “anti-competieve” strategies, and so on.

In a new post today, the EFF has proposed that Apple let users of its iOS platform break through the “beautiful crystal prison” and have more control over the OS. The EFF also argues that OS X is becoming more of a restricted platform on the Mac, and that Apple should pave the way for a more open culture leading into the future.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak recently went on the record to say that he wished Apple had a more open approach to its platforms, allowing tinkerers and pro users (like Woz himself) to get under the hood and change things at the system level. There has been longstanding tension between this mentality and Apple’s. The strain is most evident in the jailbreak community, a large group of users who prefer to have access to modify and tweak iOS beyond what Apple allows. Apple is constantly playing the cat and mouse game with jailbreakers, patching new jailbreak exploits while hackers desperately scrounge to find more vulnerabilities for the next version of iOS.

The EFF believes that iOS is a “beautiful crystal prison,” and that OS X is slowly becoming one too:

Apple changed the way we think about mobile computing with the iPhone, but they have also lead the charge in creating restrictive computers and restrictive marketplaces for software. You may have purchased an iPad, but unless you’ve exploited a vulnerability in iOS to jailbreak it, there are many things you cannot install on it. The App Store has thousands of apps to choose from, but your choices are limited to apps that both Apple has approved, and which can function without “root” or “administrator” privileges.

In OS X, Apple now touts the Mac App Store, a similar environment where developers can only publish apps that meet Apple’s guidelines. Apple also takes a 30% cut of all revenue in the iOS and Mac App Stores. OS X Mountain Lion will introduce Gatekeeper, a security tool that will serve to keep unapproved apps from being installed on the average user’s Mac. Apple has already created a safe, controllable experience for mobile, and the company is slowly and deliberately bringing that environment to the desktop.

Launchpad brings the iOS Home screen look to the Mac.

According to the EFF, mobile and desktop computer owners should be given these 4 rights:

  1. Installation of arbitrary applications on the device.
  2. Access to the phone OS at the root/superuser/hypervisor/administrator level.
  3. The option to install a different OS altogether.
  4. Hardware warranties that are clearly independent of software warranties.

Apple did not invent the culture of imposing restrictions on what kinds of programs people could run on the computers in their pockets. Mobile phone manufacturers and carriers were making life miserable for programmers long before Apple entered the smartphone market, and writing code for phones in those days was described as “a tarpit of misery, pain, and destruction”. If anything, Apple’s innovation was to show that it was possible to have a computing platform that was simultaneously useful, successful, and deeply restrictive of what people were able to do with it.

The idea that Apple will totally reverse its approach to creating platforms is frankly silly. iOS devices are flying off the shelves faster than ever, and consumers are proving that they want what Apple has to offer: a usable, stable, beautiful, safe computing experience. There were always be power users who want their own “bill of rights,” but you’re fooling yourself to think that Apple will be the company to offer such a thing. OS X will continue becoming more iOS-like, and many, many people will welcome the changes. We all seek familiarity, Apple is providing that by methodically weaving its different platforms together.

So yes, iOS is a “beautiful crystal prison,” and OS X is becoming one. Unless Apple becomes a radically different kind of company, don’t expect that to change.

And remember, no one is forcing you to stay in Apple’s prison. If you don’t like the neighborhood, you’re welcome to move out.