Generativity Alive and Well with the IPhone

by on February 5, 2009 · 8 comments

I’ve been hammering Jonathan Zittrain pretty hard here over the past year for the thesis he sets forth in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It that digital “generativity” is at risk today. The reason I have been doing so is because all signs point in the exact opposite direction, and more so with each passing day. Contrary to Jonathan’s fear that the Internet and digital technologies are growing more closed, tethered, and sterile, I have argued that the facts on the ground show us how the world is actually becoming far more open, untethered, and innovative.  And that’s true even for the technology that Jonathan singles out in the book for special scorn — the iPhone.

Consider David Pogue’s post today on the New York Times‘ technology blog today entitled “So Many iPhone Apps, So Little Time.” Pogue reports that:

there are now 15,000 programs available on the App Store, and so many more are flooding in that Apple’s army of screeners can’t even keep up. I keep meaning to write a thoughtful, thorough roundup of the very best of these amazing programs, but every day that I don’t do it, the job becomes more daunting.


Apple, which runs the store, keeps 30 percent of each sale. Even so, Ocarina [an application Pogue discusses in his essay] demonstrates that a programmer can make a staggering amount of money from the iPhone store. It’s a crazy new software model that I don’t remember seeing anywhere else. It’s not a boxed software program for $600, or even a shareware program you download for $25. It’s a buck a copy.

The beauty here is that at these prices, there’s very little risk in trying something out. How many software programs have you bought for your Mac or PC? Two? Four? Well, the average iPhone owner may wind up installing 10, 20 or 30 programs. In all, according to Apple, iPhone owners have downloaded 500 million copies of these programs. Half a billion–since last July.

There’s a lot of gloom in the tech industry (and every industry, for that matter). But even when the economy is crashing down around us, there’s still amazing power in a single good idea. And the one on display here–pricing software so low that millions of people buy it without batting an eye–is turning a few clever programmers into millionaires.

I ask you: Does this sound like a world that is growing less generative, as Zittrain argues? Because it sure doesn’t sound like it to me.  Moreover, if you still don’t think the iPhone is open enough, then there’s always a simple solution to that: just buy another phone!

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