Freedom sacrificed for an easy life, in Apple’s Brave New World
Apple should be part of the open online society, rather than the architects behind a system of control, argues Bill Thompson
07 Mar 11

Apple should be part of the open online society, rather than the architects behind a system of control, argues Bill Thompson

Welcome to the Brave New World of the Macintosh App Store, where Big Brother Steve is in complete control.

It is becoming harder and harder to feel comfortable about the business practices of Apple as it continues its transformation from being a design-obsessed computer company into the authoritarian centrepiece of the digital life of the millions of people who have chosen ‘the Apple Way’.

As a long time Apple user myself, and someone who has introduced many friends and family to Macintosh computers, iPods, iPhones, iPads and the iTunes Store over the years I am beginning to feel like a left-wing writer who, having always spoken up in favour of the Soviet Union, wakes up one morning to find Russian tanks in the streets of Budapest, crushing the nascent Hungarian democracy.

Apple has always exerted rigid control over its products, and this brought many benefits when it only spread as far as the hardware platform, the operating system and Apple-developed software. I could live with a one-button mouse and a limited range of expensive but beautiful hardware platforms because Mac OS allowed me to connect to the internet and install whatever software I liked, even if I had to write it myself. Being able to do it on machines of transcendent beauty like the MacBook Air — on which I’m currently working — was sufficient compensation.

The iPod and its descendants troubled me because they were a closed, controlled and carefully managed platform, and even without the FairPlay digital rights management system, Apple has spent a great deal of time and effort making the iPod product range as closed and un-interoperable as possible, to the extent that I had to buy a copy of a program called Senuti in order to copy legally-acquired music from an iPod that I owned because Apple refuses to make such copying part of iTunes.

My concerns grew when the App Store for portable devices launched with unpublished, restrictive and arbitrarily enforced rules on which apps could be offered, rules that seemed to combine the worst US-style prudishness with a desire on the part of Apple to restrict access to anything that might compete with its own software or reduce its control of users in any way.

This authoritarianism has become unavoidable after it emerged that Apple is insisting that publishers who allow users to buy content that can be delivered to iPhone/iPad apps — like Amazon Kindle books or magazine subscriptions — will be forced to allow them to buy the same content within the application and pay 30 per cent of the revenue to Apple. Suddenly Amazon must pay Apple for the privilege of allowing its customers to read titles on the iPad.

Arguments in favour of Apple’s plan note that tablet computers and e-readers are specialised devices, that users are happy for them to be “tethered” to services that make life easy, and that Amazon charges for access to the Kindle, but now the same sort of system is being extended to computers running Mac OS, with the launch of the Mac App Store, an online service that brings the convenience of iOS-style software purchase, installation and upgrade to all Mac users.

The App Store appeared with the recent Mac OS 10.6.6 update, when users found a new icon in their dock when their computers rebooted that welcomed them to the world of Apple control. Looking like a cross between the iTunes logo and a Masonic sigil, it means there is no need to go to a website or buy a DVD: programs are listed online and can be bought and paid for through a linked Apple account, and upgrades are advertised and installed simply and seamlessly.

The App Store doesn’t stop you downloading, installing and running your own software, because that would be illiberal and wouldn’t fit the West Coast hippy ethos that Apple still likes to be associated with. Like a government-mandated identity system that is not compulsory but is inextricably tied to the passport system, staying out of its clutches will be increasingly difficult and most users will eventually succumb.

They will find that their favourite utilities are no longer available to buy in shops, or that the DVDs in the box that they bring home actually do no more than activate an App Store link. And they will discover that developers have decided to remove anything that Apple may not like or approve of from their software in order to reach large markets, like features that “encourage excessive consumption of alcohol” or “present excessively objectionable or crude content” — all restrictions listed by Apple and all features I personally look for in any program I use.

There will be no trial or beta versions either, which might be rather inconvenient for anyone who wants to try a program before actually purchasing it. Of course life with App Store will be easier for anyone who isn’t concerned about their freedom to run code or the creative potential of the computers they use, and it will help sell Macs to lots of new computer users who worry about keeping programmes updated or don’t understand anything about how their systems work.

It is indeed a brave new world that has such software in it, but like the Brave New World described by Aldous Huxley in his novel, it is one in which freedom is sacrificed for an easy life. Like Soma, the drug that keeps the population content and serene, apps and the App Store offer the vision of a life untroubled by install disks, out of date software or programs that fail to run as advertised.

But perhaps another analogy is more appropriate. In his recent book The Net Delusion Evgeny Morozov points out that the three main pillars of Orwell-style authoritarian control are propaganda, censorship and surveillance.  Replace that with “online adulation”, “restrictive app store guidelines” and “tracking and ownership of subscriber records” and we have a good analogy for the computing world that is currently on offer from Apple.

The question is, does this matter? Apple has a relatively small share of both the computing and the device market and there is plenty of competition. An online store on this model is very unlikely to emerge for Windows computers because Microsoft’s lack of control of the multiple hardware platforms on which Windows run means that there can’t be the same degree of certainty over the target platform so they will remain outside the zone of control, as will anyone who opts for the GNU/Linux free software option.

Nobody has ever forced me to buy Apple or to install a single application from its store. I chose to engage because Apple makes information technology of great beauty and the affordances of my iPhone/iPad/MacBook provide precisely the functions I need to swim in the digital ocean that surrounds me.

But Apple has decided to extend its zone of influence and use its power to assert a moral framework (“apps containing pornographic material will be rejected”) and anti-competitive restrictions (“apps with metadata that mentions the name of any other computer platform will be rejected”) that will limit the imagination and the capabilities of future technologies in a way that will act as a model for other companies and could shape our assumptions going forward.

It is time to speak out against it, to support open platforms and operating systems that allow innovation, free expression and user control and to persuade Apple that they too should be part of the open online society, rather than the architects of a system of control that will be enormous value to those who wish to limit freedom of online expression.

Bill Thompson is a technology critic and commentator on digital culture. He can be found on Twitter at: @billt.