Think Similarly


This post at CrunchGear showing a 1989 Apple ad encouraging people to "think different" by challenging the status quo, followed by a video about Apple not allowing third party apps on the iPhone touched a nerve following the most recent iPhone update.

The latest iPhone update is the first that's fixed anything more than security flaws. There were some minor UI changes--nice to have--and a new icon for the iTunes music store. Besides ruining the symmetry of the application list, the addition really rubbed my nose in the fact that this is a walled garden. "Hey, buy some music from us!"

The update also "reactivated" the phone, meaning that iTunes went off to check that the phone had a valid account and had a good SIM, etc. For people who'd hacked their phones, the process did not go smoothly, to say the least.

I'm not saying that Apple doesn't have the right to sell any product they like or that we were forced in any way to take the iPhone. I still love mine and will continue to use it. Apple was also upfront in saying that modifications voided the warranty--that's standard. The first rule of hacking is: hack at your own risk.

Still, we're seeing a real clash of expectations here that could have significant repercussions. People have long accepted that consumer devices (like an MP3 player) would be single purpose and locked down. We've also expected that computers would be extensible and modifiable.

Is the iPhone a consumer device or a computer? Both actually and therein lies the problem. Computer manufacturers have long envied the lock down that purveyors of consumer device were able to get away with. They'd love to lock the devices down and force people to use the devices the way that they intended when they designed them.

For all the grief Microsoft has taken over the instability of Windows, it is largely a result of trying to build a platform that is infinitely extensible by users who will do things you have no control over. There is justifiable concern by manufacturers about the stability of open platforms.

I believe, however, that for all their warts, the computer industry we have today exists because of open platforms. From the very start, computers have been things that were programmable--by users. That set them apart from every machine that had been produced before and accounts for their incredible versatility. Most of the important advances in the computer industry were not by the people who created the platform, but by people who used it for something it's designers never intended.

Does Apple have the right to close down the iPhone? Sure. But I maintain that it will be more important and more influential if they embrace those who "think different."