The Internet Is Closing to Innovation

The Internet, perhaps the most important technological development of the past 30 years, succeeded unexpectedly. It started out in an experimental backwater, nurtured far from the mainstream. It was spawned with no business plan and with no CEO leading the charge. Instead, a group of researchers—nerds, really—had the very un-entrepreneurial idea to develop a set of free and open technical protocols to move data from one place to another. The PC, which I think of as a companion technology to the Internet, likewise groomed as the hobbyhorse of passionate nerds who (at least initially) shared their designs. Both the Internet and the PC were released unfinished, and because they were open technologies, businesses and inventors could use them as a springboard for innovation. New applications were deployed to use them without needing the permission of their vendors.

This kind of openness isn't found in cars, fridges, TiVos or any other major technology. It's what helped the Internet and PC succeed over more boring, predictable counterparts—proprietary networks like CompuServe and information appliances like dedicated smart word processors. However, now that PCs and the Internet have become mainstream tools, there's rising pressure to turn them into the appliances they defeated: to close them, in some cases forbidding outside tinkering altogether, and in others allowing it only under closely monitored and controlled circumstances. The Internet and the PC as wellsprings of innovation are living on borrowed time.

The new closed models that represent the likely future of consumer computing and networking are no minor tweaks. We face wholesale revision of the Internet and PC environment of the past several decades. The change is coming partly because of the need to address security problems peculiar to open technologies, and partly because businesses want more control over the experience that customers have with their products. The trend from open systems toward closed ones threatens the culture of serendipitous tinkering that has given us the Web, instant messaging, peer-to-peer networking, Skype, Wikipedia and a host of other innovations, each of which emerged from left field. It will produce a concentrated set of new gatekeepers, with us and them prisoner to their limited business plans and to regulators who fear things that are new and disruptive.

How is the Internet's openness moving from virtue to vice? In the pre-Internet days, mainstream computing and networking were closed activities. The business world produced expensive networking gear for use in office networks and offered pay-per-minute services, like AOL and CompuServe, for consumers. Firms were prisoner to whatever network vendor provided their hardware and software, and consumers found a limited set of groomed offerings from whichever walled garden they chose.

The Internet's flexibility soon outpaced both. Physicist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web by publishing protocols by which interested people could describe a "page" of content with links. Anyone could set up a server and offer content, and as the Internet began to accept connections with the public, choosing a network provider no longer meant locking oneself into a bundle of content. The Internet, with no plan for content or profit, ended up generating far more of both than proprietary competitors.

In similar fashion the PC became essential to mainstream businesses and consumers. Within two years of the introduction of the Apple II, which out of its box treated users to a blinking cursor awaiting further programming, Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston had invented VisiCalc, the first digital spreadsheet. The PC was no longer merely personal. Word processors and smart typewriters couldn't keep up with a device that could be a spreadsheet one second and a database the next.

Today the soaring popularity and use of the Internet and PC have changed the equation. We wouldn't want those cars, fridges or TiVos to be altered by unknown outsiders at the touch of a button, and yet this remains the prevailing way that we load new software on our PCs. That software is often rogue, harvesting computing cycles and bandwidth from a PC in order to attack others, stealing personal data or simply frying the PC. Those burned by these worsening phenomena will opt for security over flexibility.

One model for security can be drawn from our familiar appliances, which are sealed when they leave the factory. No one but a true geek could hack a car or a fridge—or would want to. We've seen glimpses of this sealed-in-the-factory nature in platforms such as iPods, most videogame consoles, e-book readers like the Amazon Kindle and cable-company set-top boxes. Steve Jobs at first locked down the iPhone in this way-a product upon which he is betting the future of Apple. In a U-turn from the values of his original Apple II, Jobs intended for Apple to completely program and control the phone: "The last thing you want is to have loaded three apps on your phone and then you go to make a call and it doesn't work anymore. These are more like iPods than they are like computers."

Of course, the Internet or PC would have to be in truly bad shape for us to abandon them for such totally closed platforms; there are too many pluses to being able to do things that platform manufacturers don't want or haven't thought of. But there's another model for lockdown that's more subtle. This new model exploits the Internet's near ubiquitous connectivity to let vendors change and monitor their technologies after they've left the factory. These technologies do let geeky outsiders build upon them, but in a highly controlled and contingent way. A great example is the iPhone 2.0, which allows a thriving market for software written by outsiders—so long as it is approved by and funneled through Apple.

Another is Web 2.0 software-as-service ventures like the Facebook platform and Google Apps, where software is written to run out in the Internet "cloud," on the vendor's service. There, an application popular one day can be banished the next. A Scrabble-like program called Scrabulous was wildly popular on Facebook—until the makers of Scrabble complained. Facebook was pressured to remove the app, even though the case for rights infringement was uncertain. Among iPhone software developers there are tales of applications that are approved one day and vanish the next, without any explanation. Until recently, Apple told its developers that publicizing the death of an app would be seen as a breach of a non-disclosure agreement-threatening a complaining developer with complete exclusion from the platform.

Technologies like the Internet and the PC are civic in the sense that they depend on support and innovative outsiders to survive and grow. When civic technologies become popular enough to subvert, they need civic defense systems. I'm part of a consortium developing free software that does just that. It helps PC users communicate with each other to defend themselves against rogue programs; before running new software, people can check to see if other members of the herd have run it, and how it worked out. The idea is to draft a critical mass of users to support the common protocols of the Internet, so that we don't yet have to give up and call in the police or the Pinkertons—or Steve Jobs.

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