In my 2010 year-in-review post I made a passing mention to my decision not to buy any more Apple products. Most people who know me can probably guess the reasons behind the decision, but recently I’ve had some discussions that made me think that it’s worth a blog post to spell them out.
First is my ongoing project to move away from proprietary software in general. All things being equal, it’s better to use software whose source code I can view and modify; even if, in fact, I never do these things, the fact that I could is a kind of safeguard against a number of frequent aspects of closed-source software: data lock-in, data rot, restrictions on hardware compatibility, secret surveillance, etc. As the operating system is in many ways the foundation of all other tasks I do on a computer, so it is of fundamental importance to use an open OS.
Second. I believe in the Web as an open platform for communication and expression, and Apple is increasingly anti-web.
You often hear hoopla about how digital technologies can radically democratize and transform x (fill in your favorite x: scholarship, education, publication, politics, etc). The success or failure of these transformations is tied up with the Web’s openness as a platform: open standards like TCP/IP, enablers of decentralization like distributed DNS, free software like Linux and Apache to run servers. Putting any of these technical details under the control of a single agent, especially a corporate agent that answers only to shareholders, threatens to limit free expression and disenfranchise vulnerable groups of potential users. If a robust, widely-used, open Web is important to the future of equality and democracy, and if such a Web can only be defended by keeping out proprietary interests, then it’s important to fight against interference from those interests.
I take it as fairly obvious that Apple (and not only Apple, though they seem to be the trendsetters) is anti-Web. Consider their distribution models. iTunes makes it so that you have to buy apps, music, and movies through an application, rather than through web pages. Know that annoying “feature” where, when you click on an iPhone app link on the web, you get a page informing you that you’ve clicked on an iTunes link, whereupon iTunes proceeds to open? That’s anti-web. The increasing focus on “apps” is a more troubling anti-web move. As was nicely illustrated by an article I read a while back (can’t find the link), you can spend a whole day doing stuff on an iPad – using Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, Yelp, email, Google Maps, etc – without ever viewing a web page (though they all use web services that use HTTP as a transport). In this way, Apple is doing an end run around the web.
The nature of the end run is particularly troubling. Apple is the arbiter of the software that runs on its devices (completely, in the case of iThings; increasingly, in the case of the AppStorified Mac). This creates unnecessary bottlenecks when it comes to bugfix or security releases. It creates a single point of failure for apps and therefore for devices; if Apple goes under tomorrow (or, more likely, changes their mind completely about whatever they please), how will you continue to update your apps? Worst, it puts Apple in the position of policing for content, which, whether driven by a well-intentioned desire to avoid offensive content or by a malevolent puritanism, is a Bad Thing.
Anyway, all of these points have been made over and over again, by many different people. My own bottom line: I believe in the value of the open web to such an extent that I’ve devoted my career to it. Thus, it feels wrong to keep using, and indirectly encouraging the use of, technologies like Apple’s. That goes especially for iOS and its devices, the area where I think the threat to the web is worst. But it extends to the Mac as well. Even if you maintain that the Mac will never merge into iOS (a position I find disingenuous), there’s no question that spending money on Mac hardware is a way of indirectly feeding the beast. Next time I buy a laptop, I’ll be sad not to be getting a pretty MacBook, but, on balance, I feel more comfortable giving my money to a hardware manufacturer that’s less pernicious.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think that mine is a decision that everyone must, or even should, make. Using Apple products brings pleasure to a lot of people, even people who largely share my ideologies about the free web. It’s perfectly legitimate to decide that the benefits you get from using those products outweigh the downsides. But, for me, it’s past the tipping point, which is why I’m done buying Apple products.
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Good for you.
I empathise, and I certainly understand why you might disagree with the closed app store model enough to quit Apple altogether. However I can’t see any evidence that they oppose the open web. Rather the contrary.
When Apple first launched the iPhone, the *only way* to write an app for it was to make a web app. And they supported that by making it possible to save any web page to the home screen, where it got a nice shiny icon, looked just the same as Apple’s own apps. Web apps saved to the home screen even launch without browser chrome, to make them feel more native.
After clamour from developers, Apple made it possible to write native apps. They only allow distribution of these apps through their closed store. They take a cut, they insert DRM, they censor. These can all be considered objectionable.
But they *did not* take away the ability to run web apps. Keynote after keynote, they reiterated that they have two app platforms; native apps through the closed store, and web apps through the open web. The bookmark button in mobile Safari still has “Add to Home Screen” right there. How is this anti-web?
Even your key example is outdated. When you click on a link to an iTunes app nowadays, you get a web page. For example: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/atomic-web-browser-browse/id347929410?mt=8
I can see your argument that promoting native apps takes attention away from web apps. I can see your objection to the closed app model. I can’t see how this indicates that Apple is anti-web. They’re not blocking or censoring the web, they’re not fighting open standards. In fact (unlike, say, Microsoft), Apple is an active member of the W3C’s WHATWG, the working group that stewards HTML5, along with Google and Opera and the Mozilla Foundation.
Apple’s browser, Safari, supports open web standards incredibly well. The iOS5 version of Safari is the most standards-compliant mobile browser available: http://www.infoworld.com/d/html5/ios-5s-safari-beats-all-mobile-browsers-in-html5-compatibility-175371
And of course Safari is built on top of Apple’s open source Webkit project (which itself was forked from KHTML), and which is the basis for all the other webkit browsers out there, including Google Chrome.
So sure, quit Apple in the name of openness. But I think you need to reexamine your impression that they’re against the open Web.
Viveka – Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment.
Good call. I was totally wrong about this. In my defense, I didn’t mean for this to be an all-important example, but rather a particularly annoying example of a more general trend, but I didn’t make this very clear in the post.
More generally, you’re probably right that ‘anti-web’ is an unfair overgeneralization. The evidence you cite is pretty strong that Apple is doing a lot of good things for the web-as-platform. The fact that they work for bettering the Web alongside of their own ecosystem could mean that they’re hedging their bets, or that they believe that the two platforms should peacefully coexist. Whatever the reason, I give them credit for that good work, especially for open-sourcing Webkit.
This diversion of attention is on a continuum with being anti-web. The more Apple emphasizes iOS app development, the more developer talent and IT budgets will be tied up in the Apple ecosystem. Of course, I’m not naive enough to think that those hours and dollars would otherwise have been spent on the open web. But surely it does siphon away at least some resources. And the more successful Apple becomes, the more momentum there will be toward going iOS-first, so that when a company or school talks about building their “digital presence”, an iPhone app, rather than a web site, will be first on the list. This might not be overtly anti-web, but it’s a radical de-emphasis that in the end may not be all that different from being anti-web.
I should be clear that I don’t fault Apple for this. Insofar as they’re a company with shareholders to please, they’re well within their rights to invent and promote whatever new development models they want. If their models are successful – if users and developers and companies love using and building iOS apps instead of working on the web – then that’s great for Apple.
But it’s not good for me personally, because my livelihood depends on the continued popularity of the open web as a platform for development. And I don’t think it’s good for the world in general, because I think (for reasons I’ve discussed here and elsewhere) it undermines some of the social potential of the internet. I feel like money spent on Apple products is like a vote for the continuation of the trend, which is something I don’t feel comfortable with. But I don’t explicitly call for anyone else to do the same thing, because I realize that I could be blowing it all out of proportion 🙂
To be perfectly honest, a lot of the progress of great open source projects wouldn’t exist without companies like Apple driving innovation. There are thousands of developers who look to Apple for inspiration and are driven by companies with great design.
In addition, Apple has united developers and users much more than any open source project. So has Facebook. The “evils” these companies bring to the world are acceptable because of the good they bring. If the iPhone was never invented, Android would have been born many years later and would suck even more than it already does. Tablets would have sucked. Innovation in these areas wouldn’t have happened. Companies like Samsung and Motorola would produce crappy, disjointed user experiences (well, they still do a pretty good job of that).
Open source projects can only be improved by looking at the greatest innovations, no matter where they come from, and saying, “We need to do better than this. This is great, but we can do better.”
WordPress co-founder, Matt Mullenweg, is highly inspired by Apple’s products. He’s also inspired by projects like Google Chrome. If you write off Apple products completely, you will most definitely miss out on some of this world’s greatest innovations. And that, I think, will negatively affect your open source contributions.
Chris – I agree with almost everything you say. I respect and admire many of Apple’s innovations. And I’m sure you’re right that many developers have been inspired in very positive ways by Apple’s work. For all of those things, I’m happy Apple is around.
It’s not that I’m calling for an Apple boycott or anything. I think it’s great that people enjoy using the products. But I also think it’s incumbent on individuals to think carefully about the purchases they make, and the implications that those purchases may have. Buying an Apple laptop says a lot of things: that you appreciate good design, etc. But it also says that you support (whether explicitly or implicitly) Apple’s increasing focus on building an ecosystem around apps rather than – or at least as a full-fledged companion to – the web. For me, the balance has tipped; for others, it hasn’t (either because they don’t think that the downsides are really downsides, or because they think that the upsides are great enough to outweigh the bad). That’s all I’m trying to say with this post.
Then what’s the point of publicly expressing your own personal boycott of Apple if you aren’t trying to sway others in some way to follow your line of thinking? That’s like Martin Luther King, Jr. saying he has a dream but doesn’t want anyone else to share his dream.
Touché. It was more because I was sick of explaining it individually to people who asked. 🙂
…too smart for your own good. I agree with your reasoning. the viao is good, the thinkpad too.. those were the second and third best laptops I’ve owned, right behind the mbp’s.
Awesome, thanks for the hardware recs. I’m going to try to eke as much life as possible out of the MBP (don’t have a thousand bucks burning a hole in my pocket) but these suggestions give a nice starting place.
I do not think that Apple is such a threat today.
Facebook is becoming a real threat (to our private life), not Apple.
Apple is selling equipment as others. It’s selling products online as others (music, films, applications, books…) and yes it’s handling a huge wallet credit cards user base.
It’s a successfull way for developers/designers/content makers to sell some downloadable stuff and for that yes it’s an ecosystem. Unfortunately there is no such ecosystem to make money with web sites. If you want to make money out of a free content website (a web site or an ipad onswipe website) then you need insane levels of audience to make ridiculously small profits using google advertising system. Or you have to sell paypal subscriptions or access or micropayment, it’s very hard to make money like that.
Developpers need a fluid mass market way to sell their software/content to customers.
What is a pity is that there is no opensource massively adopted wallet.
So it’s not an Apple problem it’s a wallet problem.
Available successful wallets are in the hands of private companies apple, amazon and facebook (and also google and microsoft).
The real horror of today is that to get some content either you have to pay it to one of a closed private ecosystem and delivery formats or you have to accept targeted intrusive advertising all over your screen, or to give away all your private life information forever.
tht is really a stupid world missing the equivalent of a simple banknote (without memory about the transaction, the owner)
Maybe you could help by making a wordpress/buddypress wallet so that people could buy wp/bp content as easy as with their itunes of amazon account and without any privacy tracking.
You should also provide privacy data security but that is a separate issue…
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I really can say that i appreciate your sentiment and desire to “control your own data” as well as your dedication to your beliefs and all the efforts and diligence you must have gone through in order to achieve this. However, i think i would disagree with the basic premise against Apple, that the web is the ultimate and final form of the internet in our society and that moving away from it they are undermining our digital freedom.
i believe that is a very desktop centric view of things and as we move to mobile devices as our primary way of interacting (at least for the masses) with computers, the internet as well as the plethora of real world objects now being connected to the net, the web will be just a part of that tapestry. If i’m wrong the problem is even worse, if everything is the web, then everything will be in the cloud and unless you really can create all your own services then pieces of your digital life will belong to others.
Granted, open source based solutions and services can mitigate this concern to some extent but to say that that you would ever be able to have complete access to every aspect or detail about every piece of technology is a bit idealistic. But being a dreamer is what i call a high quality problem, one that i share, in fact. i do think that the web will probably always be the largest and most significant part of the internet but ignoring the potential benefits of the internet’s fragmentation is not realistic in my opinion.
For instance the iTunes Music Store. Where would the music industry be without it today? Not to say that the music industry landscape is perfect (or even a good thing in and of itself) but at least there is one. That industry for all it’s problems supports a lot of professional artists. Piracy at one point made it seem as if there would be no future for the music industry, but for the first time in 14 years the industry made more money then it did the prior year.
Point is, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in the land of the open internet, there are some downsides to a completely free digital universe. Much like capitalism is great system but readily exhibits it’s flaws, if no rules are applied to it, i also believe there should be some practical limits on the freedom of information. Anyway, good read and as i said i respect your dedication to your cause and the basic notion of wanting to have some kind of control over your own data and wish you success in your quest to reclaim it.
ubernaut – Thanks for the thoughtful comment.
When I say “web” I don’t mean “desktops”. I mean the primacy of HTML/CSS/JS pages, delivered over HTTP, and interpreted by browsers according to open standards. This is in contrast to having our communication, publication, and expression shifted to proprietary APIs – say, the way that Twitter works. It just so happens that phones tend to use these APIs more because of the app ecosystem. But it doesn’t have to work that way, and in this case there’s no necessary difference between desktops and mobile devices.
I talk about that concern here: http://teleogistic.net/2011/03/project-reclaim/. Basically, it’s true that I’ll never be able to reclaim “the whole stack”. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to reclaim what I can.
As for your comparison with the iTunes Music Store, I think it’s not a great analogy in a couple of ways.
Thanks for the provocation, and for the kind wishes 🙂
i think we probably agree about more here then it seems here if not some of the ultimate conclusions. When i say desktop centric (maybe a bad choice of words) i do mean the same thing as you (i believe). Another example might be the other various protocols such as FTP or e-mail which are separate from the web and solve their own problems. Maybe it’s simply a matter of preference, personally i’d prefer an email client rather then webmail, for instance.
I do understand your argument about Apple being the gate keeper and as such holding an inordinate amount of control over the marketplace but i would just say that’s also a double edged sword. A certain amount of protection is afforded by that process and content vendors can bypass it completely using safer open web standards as it is but it has been shown that people by and large prefer interacting with functionally specific apps over websites at least in the mobile context. i’d suggest that means at least in some situations the web is not the perfect solution.
As you say this is a disruption of the web world which is dominated by google, either way your fate is largely in the fate of some large corporations hands. i suppose when it comes down to it we are collectively forced at least to some extent to trust these companies more then we should have to at least until some other company comes along to replace them. So again i do applaud both your motivations and you efforts.
i probably should not have invoked the freedom of information argument as it was a bit tangential (worded in a less then ideal way as well :P) but i was just trying to illustrate how one universal system no matter how open cannot address every single situation in the best possible way exactly because it is universal. It is also far from being without it’s own set of risks.
Anyway i do agree that the web is the platform that has created the (relatively) level playing field of information distribution and that is a great thing. i guess i just don’t agree that it’s existence is threatened by the existence of apps or other uses of the medium of the internet. In my mind it is simply inevitable fact that as the technology of the internet evolves that it will be more and more intwined in every aspect of our society and that not all of those facets would be best served in one mode of interaction or by one universal protocol. As such i believe that the web’s dominance over our conception of the internet while may (and probably should) always exist, will naturally wane to some extent over time one way or the other.
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