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Tourists on Tech’s Toll Roads

Kyle Rankin, Purism:

Smartphones provided tech companies with a blank slate to re-imagine how they approached software. The iPhone in particular rewrote the rules for how tightly a vendor can control a platform. While Apple has always held tight control over their platforms, in the past it didn’t get as much notice since they were a minority player compared to Microsoft’s dominance of the home PC market. Even with Apple’s tight control over MacOS, third parties could still write an application for a Mac without Apple’s permission and Apple customers could install and run it outside of Apple’s control.

The iPhone changed all of this. From the beginning, a developer must have Apple’s approval before a customer is allowed to use their application. To reinforce this control, Apple has advanced their security restrictions on the phone itself so that with each generation of iPhone and iOS, “jailbreaking” or “rooting” the phone so that you can run the software of your choice becomes more and more challenging. With the recent versions of the phone this is reinforced by custom, proprietary hardware and strong cryptography. Even hardware accessories for the iPhone require Apple’s approval or else you will get a warning that the device is not certified. These measures are always marketed as being for security from hackers and more recently also in the name of privacy, but from the beginning it has always been about ensuring that Apple can control which applications and accessories are allowed on the iPhone, in particular when those applications compete with their own offerings.

Seeing Apple’s success, competitors followed their lead so that now Android employs many of the same restrictions (again in the name of security and privacy) so that they can control the software that runs on Android devices. In the case of Android, this also ensures that cellphone vendors can not only pre-install their own vendor software that customers can’t remove, they have also made a side business out of selling software placement on their phones to third parties who often use the access to harvest customer data.

 

Traditional computers are on the same path. Google has already extended this same approach–in the name of security–to Chromebooks to ensure that the only applications allowed on their laptops are those Google explicitly approves. Apple is moving quickly to extend these same security measures to their laptops as well. The goal of each of these vendors is to have no open highways, only private toll roads, leading only to their tourist attractions.

 

We can’t accept being a tourist on tech’s toll road, the future demands open highways accessible by everyone, where you can freely go where you want, how you want. Now is the time to disrupt these closed platforms locked to and controlled by a single vendor. Openness and diversity are advantages, not weaknesses, and the future demands more openness, more collaboration, and more freedom and control given to individuals over their own computers.

The solution is to invest in technologies and companies that are building the open highways we need for the future.

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