Welcome to the out-of-control decade

We have seen the future, and it doesn't belong to you

Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications

Comment Back in the turbulent 1960s, the anti-establishment rabble was often derided as being "out of control." Fast-forward 50 years to the 2010s, when that same phrase will soon be back in vogue.

But with a very different meaning.

The coming decade is shaping up to be one in which we, as consumers and citizens, will see our control over choice and privacy eroded by business and government. Some of the effects will be mere annoyances, but others will transform society. And not for the better.

This unwelcome transformation is already underway in the personal-technology sector, led by two of the most secretive companies in our industry: Apple and Google. Waiting in the wings are corporate entities eager to exploit your personal information, and government agencies watching your every step.

Welcome to the out-of-control decade.

Embrace your widgethood

At the beginning of this decade, Apple's Steve Jobs was fond of saying that Apple stood out from its competition because its product philosophy was to control "the whole widget." In the coming decade, users will increasingly become just another component of that all-encompassing widget.

Apple's übersuccessful App Store, for example, has turned on its head the notion that if you own a computing device, it's under your control and it's yours to do with what you will.

And make no mistake about it, the iPhone and iPod Touch are computing devices, not merely phones and media players. They're both early examples of a trend that is sure to explode in the next decade: computing-in-your pocket. Both perform tasks such as web browsing, email, and productivity chores that were formerly consigned to your desktop or laptop.

What the iPhone and iPod touch don't have in common with earlier computers is the fact that you don't control what software you can use with them. Apple does.

To be sure, you can now choose from among 100,000 apps to load upon Apple's handhelds. But who selects the apps from which you can choose? Apple does.

And Apple's control over its App Store is deservedly notorious. Examples are legion.

Background processing? Apple makes it possible for its own apps - iTunes, for example - to run in the background when other apps are being used. That's not the case for third-party apps such as Pandora's personalized music service or the Shoutcast internet-radio enabler.

App-installed executables? Sorry, no can do - Apple's EULA for the iPhone SDK specifically prohibts an app from calling or installing externally sourced executables. Tough luck for Flash and Java.

Competitive apps? Outside of Apple, no one knows how many apps have been rejected because the App Store police considered them competitive to Cupertino's own offerings. One case that did come to public attention was the dust-up when Google said Apple rejected its Google Voice and Google Latitude apps, Apple said it was merely continuing to "study" them, and AT&T said "Don't look at me, bro!"

Adult-themed content? Despite every user's ability to access an unending torrent of sweaty salaciousness through Apple's own Safari app, the App Store itself remains a bastion of purity, unsullied by even the suggestion of nipple or bum - despite the fact that in most cases such content is perfectly legal.

Allegedly defamatory content? Apple unilaterally decides what's defamatory and what's not. Witness, for example, how the App Store police rejected an app featuring safe-as-milk caricatures of various political figures - then reinstated it only after a media ruckus.

We could go on, but our point is clear: By signing up for an iPhone or iPod touch - or, we're willing to bet, the impending iPad - you're relinquishing control over your mobile computer and allowing Apple to decide what's best for you.

There are indeed ways to at least partially regain that control, but loading an app that hasn't received Apple's blessing requires you to jump through jailbreaking hoops - not a task for Mr. and Ms. Average Consumer.

And should you have the temerity to want to revert either your device's operating system or an app, Apple throws up roadblocks.

Why? Because, as an Apple spokesperson told The Reg, "Apple always recommends that iPhone customers keep current with software updates for the best user experience."

You don't have control over that user experience. Apple does.

In a recent Businessweek interview in which he attempted to tamp down rumblings of dissatisfaction over App Store control, Apple's marketer par excellence Phil Schiller embodied Cupertino's paternalistic approach to application delivery. "You and your family and friends can download applications from the store," he said, "and for the most part they do what you'd expect, and they get onto your phone, and you get billed appropriately, and it all just works."

In other words: "Don't worry. Be happy. Apple's in control." Even if you don't want it to be.

Of course, you can avoid Apple's grip by simply not patronizing them. No one is forcing you to own an iPhone or buy your music from the iTunes Store. However, in the 2010s, the merciless success of Apple's model may inspire others to emulate its style of control. Not only because it works and works well, but also because control over a device's apps makes it easier to control competition, customer support, and pricing strategies.

And as the out-of-control decade dawns, technology providers are moving such control out of your pocket and onto your desktop or laptop. There's a growing trend for telcos to offer subsidized netbooks - and as the decade progresses and true wireless broadband such as LTE and WiMAX becomes pervasive and localized WiFi hotspots fade, it will become increasingly rare for telcos to offer such services without subsidized platforms.

In this model, a telco can choose to lock down - either technically or through restrictive user licenses - what apps may reside on a subsidized computing device.

As the decade progresses, however, your choice of apps may become moot as the concept of standalone, device-installed apps fades into computing history. You may have heard of the prime mover behind this next control-quashing development: the cloud.

Apple certainly has. It isn't building that $1bn data center in North Carolina simply to support its accounts-receivable department. Cupertino will soon be moving into cloud computing in a big way.

But for the foreseeable future, Apple will remain behind another Silicon Valley megacorp that has a huge head start in gaining control over what you see on the internet and what information can be gleaned from you.

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