Steve Jobs Isn’t Big Brother, and the Mac Remains Open [Mac Skeptics Part 2]



Previously on Cult of Mac, I decried the growing alarmism of tech punditry regarding Apple’s as-yet-unreleased Mac App Store. GDGT’s Ryan Block citing something about the cloud or something, noted that his pet applications are probably not going to be hosted by the App Store, which therefore means that meaningful innovation in desktop software is impossible. I begged to differ.

But my greater scorn has been reserved for the subject of this post, the Gizmodo commentary “Big Brother Apple and the Death of the Program,” by Matt Buchanan. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and check it out. It’s a doozy of tortuous logic, FUD, and faulty analysis well-worth your time. The following is my rebuttal to several of its most absurd assertions.

More than 25 years ago, a commercial warned us about the future of computers. Closed. Censored. Dark. A “garden of pure ideology.” How strange that that’s exactly what the future of Apple’s computers looks like today: the Mac App Store.

I think the “1984” commercial was actually about how a world built of IBM’s vision of the PC would be boring. If you can point me to the part about it being “closed,” I’d love to see it. But I appreciate the moxie of trying to hoist Apple on its own petard.

Computers used to run applications or programs, but Apple has slowly turned everything into an “app.” The word is cute, simple, fun. Non-threatening. But also trivializing. Apps are disposable. The word “application” is more of a mouthful; it has a certain weight, and distinction—at least cognitively. Are Final Cut Pro and InDesign just apps? Throwaway impulse purchase that you toss a few stars at and never think about again? The simple act of labeling all third-party programs apps makes them much less significant: tiny bits of content cowering under the aegis of Apple’s mighty platform.

There’s some validity to this argument, but I think it’s spurious, largely because only people who know the terms program and applications could draw such meaning from Apple’s rebranding. Beyond which, “programs” just sound like something you build in your 7th grade computer class to draw a circle and then fill it in with one of 16 colors.

That said, I’m dumbfounded by the notion that any computer built since the introduction of the GUI era was anything but driven by the identity of the OS and platform as opposed to the software. People have made Windows and Macintosh applications for decades now, and I think you would have to go back to the days of DOS for the program to be more important than the operating environment.

When you’re just trying to watch a movie, play a game or read a book, nobody wants complication. So it’s largely okay that Apple maintains such tight control over apps for the iPhone and iPad. They’re technically computers, yes, but we expect a totally different kind of experience. It’s the price we pay for largely trouble-free computing.

Apple wants to bring that experience to all personal computers. And that’s commendable, in a lot of ways. But part of what makes a PC more powerful than an iPad is that you can install any program you want. A macro program that fills in sentences after you tap just a couple of letters. A system-wide notification app that any program can tap. A BitTorrent client. For Apple’s way to work, it has to control every facet of the computing experience, turning the PC into a closed system. An electronic Camelot? Might be more like an electronic Stepford: When you think beneath the shiny surface of the Mac App Store, it’s kind of a scary thing.

No, it isn’t. It really, really isn’t. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the people who don’t want complication on their iPhone or iPad are also people who don’t install macro programs, run BitTorrent, or install Growl. And Apple obviously doesn’t control every facet of the computing experience, or they would be announcing that they won’t allow any such applications to be installed in the next version of OS X. They haven’t. They want to give novice users a safe place to download software without any threat of harm. They don’t want to force expert users to switch to Linux or Windows.

Is this the kind of computer we want? A closed, completely controlled platform that hews to one company’s vision of what we should be watching, downloading or doing? It is frighteningly easy to picture a Mac where all your apps have to be approved by Apple; all your music, movies and TV shows are streamed from iTunes; all your books come from iBooks. This will be totally fine for some people. But as the rest of us become increasingly comfortable molding our computing experience to our own needs, this strict environment starts to seem claustrophobic—even technologically totalitarian. It’s still startling to think, even after the last few years of the App Store on the iPhone, that this is coming from the same company that made the 1984 ad over 25 years ago.

That was an ad for a computer that had no user-accessible hardware slots, couldn’t have a hard drive attached to it, and was incompatible with every software program on the market at that time. If anything, Apple has opened the kimono a lot more since the first Jobs era. And why would all your media come from iTunes and iBooks? I have VLC, Pandora, HuluPlus, Netflix, and the Kindle app on my iPad. I agree that if you’re hyperbolic and want to scare people for page views, it is easy to imagine such a technologically totalitarian environment. For that matter, it’s easy to imagine a computer that logs every keystroke you make and periodically takes a picture of you without your permission and sends it to the FBI. Imagination and reality should not be mistaken for one another.

For now, App developers can still sell and distribute apps the same way they always have, outside of the Mac App Store, and we’ll still be able to download and install them the old fashioned way, willy nilly. But the incentives for developers to go through the App Store are going to be mighty powerful, possibly irresistible. Overwhelmingly, it’s going to be the way Mac users find and buy apps. How long before it’s the only way to sell apps on the Mac? It feels inevitable, just like the App Store creeping over to OS X. Apple is slowly starting to grip the rest of the Mac more tightly to pursue its vision of the future of computing, which is more iOS than OS X. More 1984 than 2010.

It does not feel inevitable. It’s as likely that this is a signal that Apple is aware that more sophisticated users don’t need a curated environment, and that side-loading of applications will come to the iPhone and iPad some time in the near future. It would also require Apple to disable a fundamental way that OS X operates, which is that you can run any application on it without going through an installation procedure. You just load a DMG, and away you can go. I think, at worst, we’ll continue to see warnings that this is a program you downloaded from the Internet and not the Mac App Store.

Apple isn’t coming for Evom, Growl, Multiclutch, Plex, or Transmission any time soon. You probably won’t find them on the Mac App Store, but that’s a lot less important than your fevered imagination would have us believe. We don’t have a single case of Apple making something less open over time from a software standpoint. Quite the opposite. The original iPhone didn’t allow software installation, and now the App Store has 300,000 of them. Pretty much every big technology Apple creates now is submitted as a standard, which is why Webkit is running on every Android phone and most Blackberries these days, and OpenCL is available from IBM, AMD, NVIDIA, VIA, and even ZiiLABs. And it’s why you can expect to see a FaceTime client for Android in the next two years.

There is absolutely no way that Apple will in the future remove the ability to install Mac OS X applications that it won’t sell through the Mac App Store. I stake my reputation on it. Which isn’t just a fancy way of saying, “I love Big Brother.”