04-08-10 - The Death of The Computer Utopia

The other day N was looking at some image on the web on her mac, and something was going wrong and she exclaimed "they won't let me set this image as my desktop!". My first thought was "preposterous!" It's a computer! If you can see the image, you can do whatever you want with it. Nobody can control what you do with your content on your computer. It is a wonderful free space, a space where you can live outside of strict boundaries and rules for how things are supposed to work. You can take any two bits you want and plug them together. If you so choose, your computer can be delightfully free of subscriptions, advertising, corporate control, everything that ruins the shitty rest of the world.

But then I realized - my god, I'm not sure that's true any more. Do Macs have some thing where they won't let certain images be set as desktops? Maybe they don't allow desktop images at all, because Steve Jobs believes it's bad for the Feng Shui of the UI. Maybe they have a deal with some copyright holders that checks for fee licensed media rights ?

The fact is, Apple is destroying the utopia that was the free and open computing space. And you all are lapping it up. I've been calling for a boycott of Apple for some time, but there seems to be no interest around the web. That's sort of weird and surprising to me, because I believe what Apple is doing right now is actually worse than anything Microsoft ever did, and there was massive anger about the draconian oppression that MS applied in their rise to power. I find it quite mad that MS is legally required to give competing application developers equal access to their operating system (so that eg. IE isn't allowed to be more closely meshed with the OS than any other web browser) due to the various suits against them, and yet right now Apple is exerting far more nefarious control - not only do competing apps not get equal access, they might not get to run AT ALL! That is just mind blowing.

Some people seem to think this is a good thing . I think that's quite mad and naive. Windows is a democracy, it's capitalist, it's a free space. If people choose to buy apps that are janky and slow and crash and have bad UI, it was their choice to do so. We should be forcing apps to get better by choosing to buy only the good ones. Instead, commentators applaud the dictator for cracking down. This is equivalent to the US Government mandating a certain look & feel for all homes being built. Oh, you want a tacky McMansion? No, I'm sorry that's against the law. Yes, the houses would look better, but the result is not the point!

I can't imagine ever buying a computing device that is not completely free and open for me to do anything what I want with it. I can't imagine ever buying content (like music or an e-book) that isn't delivered to me in a form where I can do anything I want with it. Maybe it should be a law that all operating systems must be open ? Perhaps, but I would rather see that expressed in the marketplace - boycott all operating systems that aren't open!

The most disturbing thing to me is the blind consumer acceptance of this new paradigm. It just shocks me that there's not more uproar. I see this as the end of the delightful utopia that has been computing. Computing will soon become just like very other fucked up shitty aspect of life - telecom, health insurance, finance, etc. - where we have no real choices because they are all the same, they all fuck you with obfuscated rules and corporate dodges, where you have no power and no freedom, you can only sign up for some program that was pre-designed for you. Already the internet is becoming unfree - broadband providers are already detecting and throttling various content types such as torrents or streaming video; my email host Verio is now automatically spam filtering my outbound email and I'm not allowed to disable it; the government is snooping everything we send online - and people have swallowed it all.


Brian said...

Yeah, I also don't like Apple's closed policies regarding iPod/iPhone/iPad. I don't own one. But I do own a Macbook and have mixed feelings about having that given their overall policies.

Matt said...

Did you try right-click and 'inspect element'? That should work on all WebKit browsers and Firefox. That Web Inspector allows you to debug, live edit, and inspect all resources pulled by a web page despite most javascript obfuscation techniques that would try to prevent you from downloading images. I haven't heard anything in the OS that would prevent you saving some bits on a particular format on your Mac. (Though that may not apply on iPhone/iPad).

That advice may be old news for you, but in general open source browsers, web standard protocols available through couple lines of python, and the ability to take a can opener to web app front ends is a far better world IMO than the old days of trying to disassemble MSDOS exe's to figure out your game save format. Though it may sound better because I was a kid then and everything was awesome and new.

In no way am I endorsing Apple here. They disable and enable access as it benefits them of course, and so does every other console and phone manufacturer.

B. Landers said...

I've never heard of such a thing and a quick google search turns up nothing as well. Can you provide an example of such an image that you can't set as a background? It may be a bug that should be reported.

Autodidactic Asphyxiation said...

The specific instance of the background image is completely beside the point. Of course you can set images as your desktop on a Mac. The crazy bit is that it wouldn't be that surprising if you couldn't. It isn't this particular thing that is crazy, but the steady erosion of the open platform -- and the fact that people are actually celebrating it.

cbloom said...

Yeah. Also, to be clear, I'm not really talking about the C vs. Interpreted issue either. That is only the most recent and most obviously ridiculous example of absurd and arbitrary control.

Far more nefarious are the individual instances where given apps are denied because they are too close to some core function that Apple wants to be the sole provider of (or plans to release themselves in the future).

The comparison to game consoles is interesting though. I dunno, I guess that is what I mean by the invasion of the closed paradigm into the computing space. Sure, old cell phones are closed, consumer electronics are closed, computers are open. A console is really computer hardware, but it is sold as consumer electronics and it is not a multi-purpose device that the user can be creative with and control, you just play the games you are given. I don't find the closed platform to be that onerous in that case (though I know some people do). But an iPad is really a tablet computer. And really an iPhone is just a small tablet computer with some shitty phone capabilities tacked on. It is the invasion of the closed paradigm into the computing space.

nothings said...

Weird, somebody tweeted about this, it was retweeted and retweeted and then injected into the LiveJournal of someone I know. I don't know if that means it's going to pick up steam in the twittersphere, or if that's as far as it's going to go and it was just dumb luck I saw it.

Tom said...

"But an iPad is really a tablet computer. And really an iPhone is just a small tablet computer with some shitty phone capabilities tacked on." -- erm, you what? You should justify this statement better if you're going to argue -- as you do -- that the closed nature of, say, the Xbox360 is not a problem ;)

Personally the closedness of the i-whatever stuff doesn't bother me one whit. People say, as you do, that it isn't like a games console -- but they offer up no real rationale for this line of thought. As far as I'm concerned, it IS just like a games console.

I suppose many newly-professional games programmers, on their first encounter with a TRC document for whatever platform, were inclined to think, "WTF?". That was certainly my first thought. All those restrictions, all this bullshit, what is their motherfucking problem, and how am I ever going to do this?! But it's not a problem, it's not hard to sort out, you just have to do it -- and if you don't like it, you can always go off and develop for PC. Your freedoms have not been curtailed.

And with the i-blahblahblah, we've got the equivalent of 1 zillion (approx) newly-professional games programmers meeting the TRCs for the first time. They'll moan and suggest it's unfair, all this bullshit, how will they ever sort it out? And maybe it is bullshit, and maybe it isn't, but, whatever... if they don't like it they can always go off and develop on PC. Their freedoms remain as they always were.

But they don't. And I think that is an important point.

cbloom said...
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cbloom said...


"But they don't. And I think that is an important point."

Of course developers go where the customers are. That is not an important point, it is a completely spurious point. Doing business with someone who has evil practices in no way implies approval, and no amount of success or adoption proves that what they are doing is okay.

"and if you don't like it, you can always go off and develop for PC. Your freedoms have not been curtailed."

FYI this type of pseudo-capitalist reasoning is completely incorrect and very destructive. The idea that I have "freedom" because I can choose not to deal with someone whose practices I don't like is just nonsense. That is only true if you are in dealing with pure commodities in a marketplace with robust competition and perfect information. This kind of reasoning is how people justify the usurius cell phone and credit card contracts - you are free to choose not to sign up for them right? No, completely wrong, because there are basically no other choices and you have to have one.

The discussion is also not about "is the iPhone/iPad good". Clearly it's good, and in fact that's what makes it so nefarious.

Furthermore the discussion is not about "is Apple's control of the app market good" - whether it's good or not for the quality of apps in the short term is not the point.

Socapex said...

First, what mac are you talking about? Mac OS X and IPhone OS are two different things. Please be clear. An IPhone is not a mac, an IPad is not a mac. One is a phone made by apple, the other a big Ipod made by apple. If you want an ultra-light and portable mac you will need to get a Macbook Air.

If you ARE talking about Iphone/ipad, check out the new OS 4 features. Guess what, ppl like you will get backgrounds, woohoo :)

Better late then never. Now, I hope you're happy and will sleep better with the arrival of a feature which, when missing, "will lead us to a doomed internet where the government spies on us"... :P

All because of a background, obviously it's a conspiracy! Go talk about that to a homeless person, or maybe take a trip to Somalia and compare your really profound problems. Just the fact you can choose to buy an Iphone/Ipad/mac means you are free in a material sense. Developers are free in a creative way, to develop for which-ever platform they wish.

Erwin Coumans said...

You fail to support why the iPad differs from a console, because the iPad IS a console. It has been positioned as consumer electronics to play games, read ebooks, browse the web, listen to music and watch pictures.

How does that differ from a Playstation 3?

Aaron said...

An iPad is not a console at all... Yes, a ps3 can do a bunch of extra non-console'y stuff (surf the web, etc), but that's the purpose of it, and almost no one uses to do those things. A console does one very restricted thing. It is an appliance. An iPad is a computer, not a console, because if you look at the breadth of the applications for it (app store), you see that it can do basically everything a PC can do. It is a pc, based on what it can do and what people actually use it for. A ps3 is not a pc, because 99.9% percent of the time, all it does is play games.

With the one downside that you only get to do what Steve Jobs says you can do. If I want an app of huge sweaty interactive boobs on my iPad and someone wants to sell it, I should be able to buy it (heck, that might even make an iPad worth it... well probably not...)

To some extent it's a false choice though. I should *also* be able to buy and run any game I want on my PS3/360. There should totally be 'app store' apps that are safe and good and nice, and 'wild' apps that I can just run willy nilly and buyer beware. But, in the game context, 'official' apps tend to be good apps. Outside of games, that is very much not the case.

Aaron said...

Edit: "but that's the purpose of it" -> but that's not the purpose of it"

An iPad is also a PC cuz I see people in the coffee shop with it propped up like a laptop, killing themselves trying to on it. I shit you not I saw a guy with a macbook pro and an iPad in Zoka, and he was remote-desktopped into the pro from the iPad, TYPING ON THE iPAD. Maybe he was just seeing how far he could push the boundaries of the device. He seemed to just be writing a paper though.

Erwin Coumans said...

Both iPad and PS3 are consoles, or appliances for media consumption and entertainment: play games, movies (PS3 has a Blu-Ray and DVD player), photo viewer etc.

The iPad is not a open tablet computer. If you want that, just wait for the HP Slate or similar devices.

Aaron said...

The last bit of proof that the iPad is a computer :)

The iPad is only closed cuz Apple says it is, not because of what it is or how people want to use it. It is a cool piece of tablet PC hardware with a crippled OS.

Could I take the PC you're using right now, and sell you an OS that only runs apps from my app store, and call your PC a console? It wouldn't be. It would be a PC running a PC OS with one ability locked down (the freedom to run any app you want), just like the iPad.

Erwin Coumans said...

You can do the same with a PS3, running linux as OtherOS, but it is crippled and cannot access the hardware without hacking.

From a developer perspective, the main point point of a console or appliance such as an iPad or PS3 is that it requires a developer license from the manufacturer.

They are simply not open systems like a computer, unless you hack it.

cbloom said...
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cbloom said...

Yeah, it's hard to address, I just don't see how you can claim that an iPhone/iPad is "not a computer" therefore it's okay. There absolutely are a large percentage of people who use them as a generic computing device, doing whatever they would do on a computer. Clearly there is a gray area between consumer electronics and computers, but an iPhone/iPad is way out of the gray area. I think something like the Palm Treo is more in the middle of the gray area. Philosophically, there is clearly something troubling about the idea of different standards for consumer electronics and computers, but I actually would like to introduce a very interesting idea at this time. There is something like the "Goedel's incompleteness theorem" for morality and philosophy - any completely consistent and logical moral code is not actually reasonable in the real world; and any reasonable moral code and decision framework in the real world must have theoretically difficulties which correspond to "gray areas" where it cannot make a clear ruling.

Saying "it's not a PC because it's not open" is circular/tautological reasoning, you're simply redefining "PC" to make you argument true. By "PC" I mean a general purpose computer where people do creative and productive tasks. It is simply a matter of fact that the iPad is a PC and it is the first mainstream PC in the history of computers where the users are not free to do as they please.

I think the comparison of Apple's control to console TCRs is appealing, but also misleading. The TCRs are almost entirely objective requirements for making the app just function correctly, show reasonable dialog boxes, work with memory cards and networking, blah blah blah. Developers may whine about them, but they don't really do much to prevent you from making whatever game you want. In particular they say almost nothing about content, and there is not much room for editorial or capricious rejection of games. Apple is explicitly performing censorship, as well as unclear editorial quality control, and of course intentionally excluding competitors. They also use approval as a corporate hammer, blocking Google Voice for example, while allowing Line2.

Furthermore, it's clear that the point for Apple is not just app quality. If all you cared about was app quality, you wouldn't make so much effort to brick jailbroken phones. It's clearly about control of the platform for purposes of making profit. Part of the issue is that they want to sell the hardware below cost with the user tied into a phone contract to make the money back, and if you were free to use your device as you please you could get around that. But if they actually cared about users they could easily make phones bought at full price open.

I think it's perfectly reasonable to have some kind of app quality/safety rating service, and in fact I think Windows should have something like that. By default only approved apps can run. To get approved, apps must meet some requirements for UI, not crashing, security, etc. But of course you can run any non-approved app that you want if you just hit "okay" on some dialog. You can set up your granny to run only approved stuff but you still have freedom to do what you want with your own device.

Erwin Coumans said...

"It's clearly about control of the platform for purposes of making profit."

Now we agree. And again this is no different from other video console makers.

Closed policies, censorship and control by Apple doesn't combine well with "open general purpose" or "freedom to do what you want with your own device".

Your freedom means no benefit for Apple, it is a conflict :)

Ал said...

On average, ppl listen bad music, watch bad movies, use bad software. On average, ppl are not geeks, and they don't really care... Apple products are shiny and well marketed. Most of the ppl don't and won't use the freedom you are talking about.
On the other side, the developers and in general - the ppl that are aware, should spread the "freedom idea", to educate the ppl around... I, myself, am doing that as much as I can. These blog post is an example of such activism. (BTW, I'm from Skopje, Macedonia. This post has reached me, here)
There is no easy way to rapidly change things. But we should keep up working.

Nicolas Goles said...

Your house building analogy is flawed. If YOU want to build a custom crazy house, with zero usability, you asked for it, you got it. Period. You can't blame the constructor if it's crap, you wanted THAT house.

On the other hand, crappy applications => blaming Apple for allowing the crappy app in the first place.

What I mean is that is not as simple as what you seem to believe it is.

cbloom said...

"Your house building analogy is flawed. If YOU want to build a custom crazy house, with zero usability, you asked for it, you got it. Period. You can't blame the constructor if it's crap, you wanted THAT house."

The point of the analogy is that people in real life *will* blame the contructor even though they asked for the problems, just like when they download broken apps on windows, they will blame MS even though they really shouldn't. But yeah -

"On the other hand, crappy applications => blaming Apple for allowing the crappy app in the first place.

What I mean is that is not as simple as what you seem to believe it is."

your point is absolutely correct. Obviously people have an idea that "Windows crashes a lot" when usually that is not MS's fault (sometimes it is) it's that people are free to do as they please and often they fuck it up. Apple severely controls the content, and thus does succeed in creating an illusion of stability and quality in many people's minds. So yes there are obviously advantages to controlling the content on your device from a user-experience perspective.

My point is that the open environment is so incredibly important that losing it is worse than any other gain.

RCL said...

I totally agree. I only regret that people, on average, could care less about losing that freedom.

Also, I don't think Windows is going to stay open for long. They already encourage developers get digital signatures, because "future technologies in Windows operating systems may also require that code is signed" http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ee416211%28VS.85%29.aspx

Freedom comes with great costs. It's inefficient for people to be free, it's against specialization - a feature we base our society upon. You are free to change your specialization of course (up until some point in time), but once you made your choice, all the freedoms in unrelated areas are of no benefit for you.

Freedom is also opposite to security because free people are inherently less secure. Ex-Soviet people long for stable and secure environment they used to live in, as current hazards ("you may lose your job and then you lose your house, too") are too much for them.

There's a lot of arguments against freedom...

old rants