Give Me Inconvenience, Or Give Me Death!

11 Jun 2011

In this week’s episode of The Pod Delusion, there’s a piece contributed by my brother, entitled “Death of the Operating System”. In it, he talks about the rise of “walled garden” operating systems such as Apple’s iOS, and what this means for “general purpose” operating systems such as Mac OS X, Windows and Linux1. Once walled gardens are the norm, he suggests, general purpose OSs will come to be viewed by many as being only useful for illegal purposes, and eventually will become illegal themselves.

One point on which I agree is that wall gardens are going to become more prevalent. In a recent article, John Gruber makes the point that the recently-announced Windows 8 is a flawed response to the iPad2, as it includes the ability to run the existing Windows interface, and the applications that go with it, essentially unmodified. The iPad, on the other hand, started with a completely blank slate, with no attempt at compatibility with the pre-touchscreen world. This may, at first glance, seem like a weakness, but it is, Gruber argues, key to one of the major strengths of the platform – simplicity. He’s talking about the UI, but the point applies equally to the installation of software.

Even if you discount the configure-make-install dance that’s familiar to anyone who builds their own software on Unix-like systems, installing and updating software is a pain in the arse. Systems vary in how well they handle it - Mac OS X beats Windows, and both are in turn beaten by Debian - but even if the normal install channels work well, anyone but an expert has a hard time keeping track of exactly what’s been done. This is compounded by the tendency, permitted by the general purpose operating system, for all and sundry to roll their own installation and update infrastructures. Worse, once you’ve given permission for a piece of software to install things, it’s easy for malicious software to creep in, necessitating yet more installation and tending of security software.

Most people simply don’t want this hassle. They just want to read their email, and check their Facebooks, and go on The Google. Maybe catapult the occasional bird at a tower of pigs. A walled garden – if it’s well-tended – takes the responsibility for managing things like updates and installation, leaving the user to simply choose the applications they want from a list (if that). This brings the device closer to an information appliance, as described by Donald Norman in The Invisible Computer. With it’s over-the-air backups and syncing, iOS 5 is a significant step in this direction - it’s increasingly feasible for someone to entirely forgo owning a general purpose computer like a PC, as all their needs are fulfilled by walled garden devices.

Peter’s belief is that, when this is the norm, and owning a general purpose computer is a marginal pursuit, politicians playing to the peanut gallery will seek to ban it in the same way that they banned handguns after Dunblane. While PCs aren’t as obviously deadly as pistols, the twin modern-day bogeymen of terrorists and paedophiles might make them a convenient target when Something Must Be Done.

He draws an analogy with gun ownership in the United States, but I think this is a red herring. The second amendment isn’t in the Bill of Rights by chance; the right to bear arms is intrinsically bound up in the genesis of that country. As Sarah Palin recently pointed out (albeit in her usual ham-fisted, truthy way), the American revolution succeeded in no small part due to the fact that the citizens of the nascent republic were armed. As a result, gun ownership is seen by many Americans as a key component of liberty, and no amount of Wacoes and Columbines are going to override that.

In Britain, with no such historical context, governments have more latitude to pass whatever gun control laws they see fit. However, even after tragedies such as Dunblane, and the attendant media outcry, this hasn’t led to an outright ban on firearms. Whist you can’t buy a handgun or an assault rifle, it’s still relatively straightforward to buy and own a shotgun. The reason for this is obvious; shotguns have, to borrow a phrase from the Betamax case, substantial non-infringing uses (specifically, game hunting and pest control). Handguns, on the other hand, have essentially no other use than to injure or kill other human beings3.

General purpose operating systems clearly fall into the former category. They can be used to hack into a nuclear power station’s control system, or clandestinely distribute images of child abuse, but they can also be used to sequence genomes, or administer complex financial instruments, or develop the processor for your next phone. They’re also vital as the back end for all of the web applications and cloud services that are the bread and butter of your walled garden devices. Crucially, and unlike sports shooting with handguns, these activities make a lot of money. A hell of a lot of money. Successive governments, with their talk of creative and knowledge economies, and their laser-like focus on STEM4 education, recognise this, and there’s no way that they’d kill the goose that keeps laying golden eggs so that a junior minister can have a favourable news cycle.

However, there is another possibility. You need a licence to own a shotgun. What if you needed one to own a non-locked-down computer? This couldn’t happen today - too many companies rely on selling products to computer owners - but in the future, when the man on the WiFi-enabled Clapham Omnibus is satisfied with just his iPad, it’s possible. The problem with such a move is that much of the innovation in computing comes from individuals and small companies, precisely because the barriers to entry are so low. Any country that implemented such a scheme would see a dramatic chilling effect in its software sector at least. Few governments would want this, but it’s a subtle enough point that they might blunder into it by accident. Fortunately, technology companies have in recent years learnt not to be so shy and retiring when it comes to lobbying for their own interests.

It’s also worth considering that the idea of “owning a computer” needn’t be limited to buying a box and plugging it in in the spare bedroom. Even if we reach the stage where Ken Olsen’s widely-quoted5 utterance is true, and there is no reason for any individual to have a (general purpose) computer in their home, that doesn’t mean they disappear entirely. With ever-improving connectivity, the device that does your computing doesn’t necessarily have to be the thing you’re staring at and prodding. There are significant advantages to your general purpose computer being cossetted in a data centre somewhere, where it can have air conditioning and a backed-up power supply, and make all the noise it wants. This doesn’t necessarily meaning ceding control entirely; for example, I rent a virtual server from ByteMark6, over which I have free reign. I get the benefits of their fast internet connection and other infrastructure, whilst retaining control of my software, and importantly, my data.

This leads on to a potentially more troubling aspect of Apple’s recent WWDC announcements; the dominance of the cloud. It raises the question: how happy are you about giving control of your data to a single hardware company? My answer would be: slightly happier than I am about giving it to a single advertising company, but still far from ecstatic. However, that’s an issue for a whole other post.

  1. Peter draws the distinction between “walled garden” systems, where all software must be installed through channels sanctioned by the OS vendor, and “general purpose” systems, where, once the original OS is installed, the user can install additional software as they see fit. This isn’t the terminology I would’ve chosen, but it’ll do for the discussion at hand. [back]

  2. He doesn’t really address the question of whether it’s aiming to be a response to the iPad. Microsoft’s internal fractiousness and lack of a coherent, clearly communicated vision makes this far from obvious. [back]

  3. The only non-violent use I can think of is sports shooting, but I remain to be convinced that this needs to be done with real handguns using live ammunition. [back]

  4. Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. [back]

  5. Widely, and accurately, quoted, but generally misinterpreted. The context of the quote suggests that Olsen was talking about home automation, not personal computers. Snopes has more. [back]

  6. Highly recommended, by the way. [back]

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