Apple loses its cool

By WEN STEPHENSON  |  May 14, 2010

Middle ground
And yet not everyone in digerati-land sees Apple and its mobile devices in such dire terms. Some moderates, or what purists might call Apple apologists, have staked out a middle ground.

Blogger John Gruber, an influential Mac enthusiast, acknowledges the criticism of Apple but insists that “the kids are all right,” pointing to an entrepreneurial 13 year old who became an iPad app developer. Apple’s tradeoffs with openness are worth it, according to Gruber, “because something new that is important and valuable has been gained.”

Salon’s Andrew Leonard, meanwhile, argues that Apple is not the new Microsoft because the Internet has so fundamentally changed the rules since the 1990s. “It is long past time,” he writes, “for us to dispense with binary notions of closed versus open, and instead think of the technology ecosystem as populated by multiple hybrid beasties.” Some “tighter, proprietary models” like Apple’s will succeed, but so will Google’s, with its “comparatively greater embrace of openness.”

But foremost among the moderates is Steven Johnson — co-founder of the early Webzine FEED in the ’90s and author of books on science and technology — who made a splash with a New York Times business column defending Apple’s “walled garden” against the arguments of Zittrain, et al. The iPhone platform, despite being “among the most carefully policed software platforms in history,” wrote Johnson, “has been, out of the gate, the most innovative in the history of computing,” with more than 150,000 applications created for it in less than two years. Given such evidence, Johnson even mused aloud whether the faith in open platforms — that “gospel of the Web” — now needs to be rethought.

The column led to an illuminating blog exchange between Johnson and the Berkman Center’s David Weinberger over whether open or closed platforms are more conducive to freedom and innovation. Weinberger’s bottom line: if closed devices “become the dominant way of interacting with the Net (and thus how we interact with each other), then no matter how loosely the device creators hold the reins, we are accepting the bit in our mouths.”

Johnson is far from an uncritical Apple promoter. Shortly after that exchange with Weinberger, he posted a long and thoughtful talk he’d just given at Columbia, in which he forcefully criticized Apple’s iBooks app (along with the Wall Street Journal and New York Times apps) for not allowing text to be copied and pasted, noting the “real civic consequences” of keeping words locked away “under glass” — an example of the dangers of proprietary control.

All of which only makes his defense of Apple’s closed platform — and his willingness to rethink the gospel of openness — all the more interesting. It’s as though Johnson and others like him, with a stake in both the old and new realms, want to have it both ways: rooting for Apple’s success, on which so much is said to depend, while hoping that Jobs & Co., with the right encouragement, will prove a benevolent master. Maybe even one with a sense of humor.

Wen Stephenson, a writer in Boston, was a co-architect of in 1995 and served as its editorial director. Twitter: @wenstephenson.

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