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Apple vs the iPad Bedwetters

The iPad? It's the end of the world as we know it!

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Threats real and imagined

As someone who broke the story of a genuine and significant threat to the open computing infrastructure almost a decade ago, I'm in a particularly good position to judge a real threat from a phoney fright. It's still the benchmark by which to measure all the others, implanting total control over the personal computer in quite an insidious way. This time it's much more tame.

Apparently, appliances will kill innovation. AOL, the argument goes, would never in a million years have thought of inventing Twitter. Now what a source of riches that is for everybody. Programmers will toil at the coal face of fart apps, sold for 99 cents a time - when they could be programming them in Java or Flash and giving them away for free!

We're going off a cliff!

There's a glimmer of seriousness behind this. Apple controls the legitimate applications market via App Store today - until you jailbreak it, that is. But that's no justification for the Bedwetters to raise the alarm, for a number of reasons - most of which should be understandable to everyone, even campaigning law professors.

If successful, it may be able to dictate the wholesale price for content, as it does with the music business. The copyright businesses are facing a bleak future where the wholesale price is zero, or two beans, so that's another story. The iPad is not an open computing device at present, that's for sure.

But the iPad, even if it succeeds in shifting a few copies, will become the fourth or fifth, or even sixth computer in the household. If Apple is to become "the gatekeeper" that these Bedwetters fear, then we must get rid of all the others - including MacBooks and MacPros - those work laptops, the kids' school laptop, the home PC in the corner with the photos on it - all must go on the scrapheap. These are computers that run iPhoto, or Pro Tools, and the rest. That's about a billion computers we'll need to discard overnight. The world's biggest garage sale is about to take place. All because we're mesmerized by Steve, and his magic picture frame!

Please. This reveals a view of us citizens as such witless zombies I wonder how often they stray beyond the LCD screen. They must think we're yokels. I can explain where this comes from, and why.

I birthed, therefore I am

The fear that everyone will access the internet through appliances, killing the "open internet", was enshrined in a book a couple of years ago by the Berkman Center's Jonathan Zittrain. I have a theory about this, based on some years in the techno utopian wilderness of Silicon Valley.

Often with people with a very simplified view of the world - as these Berkmanites do - is that they "birthed" at a particular time. They had very little sense of identity or self worth before this great moment, and so they're left imprinted with the world as their birthed self first took the blotter, I mean, opened their eyes. And they want things to be exactly as they were then.

It's like a duckling that thinks "Mother" is a pair of yellow Wellington Boots, because it's the first thing it sees that provides nourishment. They're imprisoned a static view of the world and inevitably regress further and further into infantilism - doomed to follow a pair yellow Wellies for the rest of their lives.

Zittrain "birthed" in the mid to early 1990s, when AOL and Compuserve were offering metered information services, and this left a lasting impression on him. I don't recall anyone back then who thought the Compuserves would survive, the Web was always going to win. But seeing off AOL was evidently some coming-of-age ritual that must be celebrated, and so re-living one's adolescent battles is something they insist on imposing upon the rest of us. At regular intervals.

Jobs' horrifies Berkman staff

It's strange to present the "future of the internet" as one of threats, rather than a set of technical challenges - that's the Puritanism I think, and no one at Berkman is noted for their tech savvy, or engineering credentials. They just talk about the web a lot, which is not the same thing. Environmentalists have already proved that scaremongering is a great way to get in the papers, and the Berkmanites like to get into the papers. It's a rejection of politics, and an implicit assumption that we're thick, to approach a subject in this way.

But even if you're going to look at threats coolly and rationally, which is quite legitimate, then this is a very selective view of the world. The internet has one choke point, and it's called Google. Computer networks are now so rich and diverse and cherished by us, that nobody can ultimately dominate. But what Google can do, that a Verizon or BT can't, is come quite close, by setting the economic parameters for others. So by reducing the ability of access networks to make a profit, it aggregates value in its own data centres. By reducing the value of copyright to zero, it bolsters its primary business, which is advertising.

Naturally, you will not hear more than a token squeak about this from Zittrain and chums, because Google is still the Mother in Yellow Wellington Boots. Oh, and it splashes the cash around readily amongst the cyberlaw schools, so they can fight the good fight.

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