What the iPhone SDK doesn't do


Jonathan Zittrain worries that the creativity that has fueled the development of the net is endangered by closed appliances like the iPhone and walled gardens like Facebook. Technologies that allow people to hack and tinker are "generative," he says -- capable of spinning off new capabilities from unexpected directions. Tightly controlled devices and services, not so much.

I spoke to Zittrain, who today announced that he's returning to Harvard Law School after a stint at Oxford, about his book, The Future of the Internet -- And How to Stop It, and its implications for the enterprise. I'll post the full interview soon.

Meanwhile, here's an excerpt in which Zittrain discusses the iPhone and its limited openness to developers. Apple's hot product is more open than it used to be -- but even the introduction of a Software Development Kit doesn't make it open enough to allay Zittrain's fears.

Jonathan Zittrain:

Apple wants to have its cake and eat it too. Who doesn't? But systemically, what it's doing is a real danger. It could be the best of both worlds, but I worry it's the worst. It certainly doesn't undercut the thesis of the book - much as I'd like it to, to the extent that I'm predicting a world I don't like, I'd much prefer to be wrong and have a world I like.

This is why words like "open" don't really capture the stuff that matters. That's why I bothered to deploy this word "generative." In my vernacular, what Apple is producing is also what Facebook apps represent - what I call contingently generative technologies. They're generative until they're not, and the ax can drop any time, on the whole enterprise or one app at a time. And that kind of winnowing is very worrisome to me.

With the first version of iPhone, Steve Jobs said, we will control everything that's on the phone, you don't want to load up apps and have the phone not work, this is more like an iPod than a PC. That's sterile, non-generative technology.

Then it gets hacked. I think reports of widespread hacking are overplayed, I don't trust the statistics, and if the hackers share the fruit of their labors others may not want to void their warranties. The cat and mouse game is different here because of the ongoing relationship the vendor has with its product. It's one thing to take something home and hack it, it's another to know it's talking to the mothership 24 hours a day, and at any moment it could be changed.

The next version of iPhone, Steve Jobs says, OK, we're going to have a software development kit, because good stuff is happening despite our best efforts, and we might as well harness that. The thing to look at is how the architecture, legal and technical, from Apple for software development by outsiders, compares to the one that we've had for 35 years with the PC? The answer is, they're very different.

Once a PC leaves a factory, it's out of Bill Gates' control. That's why you couldn't demand he shut down a P2P system.

Whereas on the iPhone they've built an architecture that says, if you want to write software for the iPhone, first you've got to pay us for a software development kit. Second, you can't just shoot the software over to somebody who has a phone, and you can't just put it on a shelf in a store for someone to buy and put on their phone. All software for this phone must go through the iPhone Apps Store. The most recent version has something called Ad Hoc, where for a fee you can have 100 people share your app without going to the store. How that's enforced is still not clear. But for mass distribution, it goes to the iPhone Apps Store, Steve Jobs takes a cut, and he reserves the right to reject, prospectively or retroactively, any software he doesn't like, for any reason.

We only have hints about what those reasons will be. There was a slide he had up when he introduced the SDK in Febuary of 2008 that said what won't be avaiable in the store: porn, privacy, bandwidth hogs, and unforeseen.

That's the point where I say, Yikes.

This could be attractive enough to the dark energy of the hackers, so they are no longer creating code for Windows but for the iPhone or Facebook apps, but then that code could be killed at any moment, by Apple for its own reasons or by the government telling Apple you have to kill it. I think that's a real worry.