Since Jonathan Zittrain’s ideas about the “generativity” have permeated the intellectual climate of technology policy almost as thoroughly as those of Larry Lessig, scarcely a month passes without a new Chicken Little shouting about how the digital sky is falling in a major publication. The NYT has had not one, but two such articles in the course of a week: first, Brad Stone’s piece about Google, Sure, It’s Big. But Is That Bad? (his answer? an unequivocal yes! as I noted), followed by Virginia Heffernan’s piece “The Death of the Open Web,” which bemoans the growing popularity of smart phone apps—which she analogizes to “white flight” (a stretched analogy that, I suppose, would make Steve Jobs the digital Bull Connor).
What really ticks me off about these arguments (besides the fact that Apple critics like Zittrain use iPhones themselves without a hint of bourgeois irony) is Heffernan’s suggestion that, “By choosing machines that come to life only when tricked out with apps from the App Store, users of Apple’s radical mobile devices increasingly commit themselves to a more remote and inevitably antagonistic relationship with the Web.” To hear people like Heffernan (and others who have complained about Apple’s policies for its app store) talk, you might think that modern smart phones don’t come with a web browser at all, or that browser software is next to useless, so the fact that browsers can access any content on the web (subject to certain specific technical limitations, such as sites that use Flash) is irrelevant, and users are simply at the mercy of the “gatekeepers” that control access to app stores.
In fact, the iPhone and Android mobile browsers are amazingly agile, generally rendering pages originally designed for desktop reading in a way that makes them very easy to read on the phone—such as by wrapping text into a single column maximized to fit either the landscape or portrait view of the phone, depending on which way it’s pointed. In fact, I do most of my news reading on my Droid, and using its browser rather than through any app—although there are a few good news apps to choose from. In fact, I probably spend about 10 times as much time using my phone’s browser as I spend using all other 3rd party apps (i.e., not counting the phone, e-mail, calendar, camera and map “native” apps). So I can get any content I want using the phone’s browser, I certainly don’t lose any sleep at night over what I can or can’t do in apps I get through the app store. I’d love to see actual statistics on the percent of time that smartphone users spend using their mobile browser, as compared to third-party apps. Do they exist?
But however high that percentage might be, the important thing is that the smartphone browser offers an uncontrolled tool for accessing content, even if apps on that mobile OS do not. And even some of the technical limitations of the browser are being solved, with Android recently announcing that flash is coming soon to Android phones. Yes, Apple may be more reluctant, but then there’s the fact that I just don’t have to use an iPhone. If there was ever a moment when the iPhone held a virtual monopoly on a certain level of functionality in a smart phone, that moment faded quickly with the rise of Android, and will fade even further with the launch of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile 7.
I bought an Android phone in part because I wanted more control over my device. Google leaves its apps store as a nearly (but not entirely) unregulated “wild West,” and if I wanted something that wasn’t available in the official Android marketplace, I can always change the default setting on my phone to allow me to install apps from anywhere on the Internet. Indeed, porn-lovers can install their own porn-app marketplace (MiKandi) to access adult apps that wouldn’t be allowed in the Android marketplace.
Anyway, all this baseless kvetching about the future of the “Open Web” offers a “target-rich environment” to those of us who haven’t drunk the Zittrain Kool-Aid. Oh, and in case you wondered (as I did) where that wonderful phrase, popularized by the ever-serious Donald Rumsfeld, came from, you can Google that on your mobile device of choice, and find this oh-so-Open-Web-worthy quote on IMDB from the classic 1986 film Top Gun, when our two intrepid heroes walk into a bar:
Maverick: This is what I call a target-rich environment.
Goose: You live your life between your legs, Mav.
Maverick: Goose, even you could get laid in a place like this.
Goose: Hell, I’d be happy to just find a girl that would talk dirty to me.