April 2010
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Month April 2010

Doctorow v. Johnson: iWhatevers versus Open Platforms and the Future of Computing

This last weekend the first iPads shipped to early adopters in the general public, including me. Like many of us in the technology business, I’ve kept a weather eye on the first impressions of many folks on the web, and friends in the industry. Most of these reactions are the stuff of geek discussion, and not terribly enlightening either about the device and its potential future uses, or the direction in which our industry is moving.

But one exchange is worth analysis and our attention, whatever the details of the device and our first impressions. Cory Doctorow, open-source freedom fighter extraordinaire and speculative fiction author, published a widely discussed, negative essay concerning the very idea of the iPad. By now, you’ve probably read it, or seen the link. If you haven’t, you should.

Cory’s essential points are two (with apologies if I’m missing something serious). First, that open platforms (think Linux, Android, FreeBSD, etc) are structurally designed to foster innovation at minimal entry cost, and with minimum friction to the innovator, and minimal interference between the innovator and the eventual consumer of those innovations. Second, Doctorow argues that the justification everyone is citing for the closed system — “making computers easy for mainstream users” — is insulting to mainstream users.

Joel Johnson responds that Doctorow’s principal arguments miss the point. In particular, that openness and innovation are not causally linked to the extent that open-source and Linux advocates claim. That innovation will thrive on the “nearly closed” platforms like the iPad and iPhone.