Zittrain and contingent generativity

When I was working on Chapter 8 of my new book, two of the works I found most useful were Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet: And How to Stop It and Tim Wu’s The Master Switch. A key idea in determining whether the Internet will remain open is Zittrain’s concept of a ‘generative system’ and the threat that tethered, tightly-controlled information appliances like the iPhone pose for that generativity. But it’s now three years since the book came out, so it was interesting to find from John Battelle’s interview with him on how his thinking has changed. Here’s the relevant extract from the interview.

At the time of the book’s drafting, the alternatives seemed stark: the “sterile” iPhone that ran only Apple’s software on the one hand, and the chaotic PC that ran anything ending in .exe on the other. The iPhone’s openness to outside code beginning in ’08 changed all that. It became what I call “contingently generative” — it runs outside code after approval (and then until it doesn’t). The upside is that the vast creativity of outside coders has led to a software renaissance on mobile devices, including iPhones, from the sublime to the ridiculous. And Apple’s gatekeeping has seemed to be with a light touch; apps not allowed in the store pale in comparison to the torrents of stuff let through. But that masks entire categories of applications that aren’t allowed — namely anything disruptive to Apple’s business model or that of its partners or regulators. No p2p, no alternate email clients, browsers with limited functionality.

More important, the ability to limit code is what makes for the ability to control content. More and more we see content, whether a book, or a magazine subscription, represented in and through an app. It’s sheer genius for a platform maker to demand a cut of in-app purchases. Can you imagine if, back in the day, the only browser allowed on Windows was IE, and further, all commerce conducted through that browser — say, buying a book through Amazon — constituted an ‘in-app purchase’ for which Microsoft was due 30%?

A natural question is why competition isn’t the answer here — or at least reason to not worry about the question. If people thought the iPhone made for a bad deal, why would they want one? The reason they want one is the same thing that made the Mac so appealing when it first came on the scene: it was elegant and intuitive and it just worked. No blue screen of death. Consistency across apps. And, as viruses and worms naturally were designed for the most common platform, Windows, those 5% with Macs weren’t worth the trouble of corrupting.

We’ve seen a new generation of Mac malware as its numbers grow, and in the meantime a first defense is that of curation: the app store provides a rough filter for bad code, and accountability against its makers if something goes wrong even after it’s been approved. So that’s why the market likes these architectures.