Last updated: February 4, 2010 - 9:12am
[Commentary] In 1977, a 21-year-old Steve Jobs unveiled something the world had never seen before: a ready-to-program personal computer. After powering the machine up, proud Apple II owners were confronted with a cryptic blinking cursor, awaiting instructions.
Thirty years later Apple gave us the iPhone. It was easy to use, elegant and cool - and had lots of applications right out of the box. But the company quietly dropped a fundamental feature, one signalled by the dropping of "Computer" from Apple Computer's name: the iPhone could not be programmed by outsiders. The openness on which Apple had built its original empire had been completely reversed - but the spirit was still there among users. A year after the iPhone's introduction, it launched the App Store. Now outsiders could write software for the iPhone. But the App Store has a catch: app developers and their software must be approved by Apple. Despite outsiders being invited to write software, the iPhone thus remains tightly tethered to its vendor - the way that the Kindle is controlled by Amazon.
If Apple is the gatekeeper to a device's uses, the governments of the world need knock on the door of only one office in Cupertino, California - Apple's headquarters - to demand changes to code or content .
Users no longer own or control the apps they run - they merely rent them minute by minute. Hope lies in more balanced combinations of open and closed systems, such as that embodied by the traditional Apple Mac - or phones based on the Android operating system from the Open Handset Alliance, a consortium of hardware, software and telecoms companies. Android Market is the approved counterpart to Apple's App Store but, in this case, users are also free to go off-roading, installing any code they like. Android is a canary in the digital coal mine: will its more open model survive should people load suspect apps and find they cannot make calls any more?
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