Why I decided to help organize the first Hacks/Hackers Unite dev camp around the iPad even though I have concerns about Apple's policies
Dan Gillmor wrote a blogpost lamenting the decision of the organizers of Hacks/Hackers to organize their first Unite Dev camp around iPad development
despite the myriad problems that journalists have found with Apple's model for how content gets on the iPad. Since I'm one of the organizers, I felt the need to respond to his criticism. I appreciate Gillmor's emphatic insistence on talking about the constantly shapeshifting economic threats to the freedom of the press. While I respect his decision not to come to our event this weekend, simply because it's for the iPad, I wanted to explain why I wasn't ignoring the problems of the iPhone OS restrictions when I made my
decision to help with this event. I'm acknowledging (and even agreeing) with most of his points while making the case for the event as we envisioned it and as it is currently going on.
First of all, I am no Apple fanatic. I got my first Mac a couple weeks ago, and while I enjoy some of its features, I haven't fallen in love. I still consider myself a "PC" person. I was gifted an iPod that I use to play music and watch videos. My phone runs Android, and I am really looking forward to learning how to build things for it.
I too am skeptical of how Apple is structuring the iPhone/iPod/iPad store, and how it's keeping much more tight control of apps being developed for the iPhone OS compared to the control it has kept over apps being developed for Mac OS X. According to the Net Applications Data quoted in this Ars Technica post
from January, Mac OS X is still less than 10% of the personal computing operating systems market; Apple would have a hard time restricting developers to a controlled market when it was already hard enough to justify developing for such a small market. Many commenters agree that Apple's open market strategy for OS X worked, as evidenced by the plethora of good applications and the relief developers experienced
when Steve Jobs confirmed that there is no App store for OS X.
With the iPhone, Apple's power dynamic in the smartphone market was different from the beginning, a difference that's magnified as the userbase of the iPhone OS grows. According to the IDC numbers quoted in this Information Week article
, Apple's share of the smartphone market has grown to 16%: a single phone with a single carrier gaining on all the market share (19%) held by several Blackberry models on several carriers. About a year ago, Nielsen estimated
that there were 6.4 million active iPhone subscribers. None of these numbers indicate a majority, but they indicate something close to a controlling plurality from a media-based developer's point of view: as a friend in the mobile gaming industry told me, if your product is an interactive mobile widget, right now you will get the most bang for your buck developing it for iPhone OS. (Please see my note below, after my reason #2 for helping with this dev camp.)
That means more power for the guardians of the iPhone app store, which is what scares journalists, and rightfully so. Between the Mark Fiore incident (Wired
) and the so-called sexual content censorship (TechCrunch
), we of Hacks & Hackers are quite aware of the problems with going to readers through an app store's bottleneck, even had Wired's Brian Chen not pointed them out back in February
. It's not dissimilar to the situation faced by comics
carried in newspaper syndication during the 20th century: any large third party between the media-maker and the media-consumer allows for the possibility of corporate censorship--and also of government censorship or social-campaign censorship carried out by corporations too willing to kowtow. Centrally controlled device-based media even allows for further chilling possibilities: retroactive censorship and the backflow of information about identities and reading habits. (After all, our local ACLU chapter
says our digital privacy laws have been far outpaced by our digital copyright laws
.) One hacker friend's immediate response to the iPad dev camp was to ask me to read Richard Stallman's 1997 dystopic tale The Right to Read
, which I now recommend too. These are all issues that journalists should be thinking about deeply, and that journalistic institutions should be taking into account as they develop major strategies.
Hacks & Hackers is all about these kinds of discussions, and the iPad censorship issue has been brought up numerous times in our informal discussion events and twitter conversations. (It came up pretty early yesterday morning at the mic: what about an app explaining these censorship issues?) When Burt told me this was the first workshop-type event he was working on, I was skeptical for exactly the reasons listed above. I'd just begun reading You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier, and I was worried that excessive devotion to developing for the iPad would lead to "lock-in" issues for the journalistic development community. Three things made me change my mind about helping:
1) Right now, the iPad is the biggest multitouch device on the market. There will hopefully be more. But if you're interested in just playing around with the cognitive possibilities of what can happen when journalism consumers kinesthetically play around with their media, this is the place to start. As a new frontier in how human beings play with information, one that unites visual and aural communication with our innate desire to pick things up and turn them around, I think it's worth exploring. And HTML5 offers the possibility of conducting explorations so that all your work isn't eternally restricted to this device. There are too many creative user-interface designers playing in this space to simply ignore it.
2) The very reason we fear the iPhone OS---its potentially strangling market grip over mobile interactive apps--is also why it's a good place to build a bridge between hacks and hackers: there are an awful lot of iPhone OS hackers, at least around here, who have put a lot of thought into making engaging mobile experiences. The talent of their community is not automatically diminished by Apple's policies. (I am even more convinced of this after meeting some of these talented developers this weekend.) There's strict
lack of access due to concrete policies and legal restrictions, and then there's fuzzy
lack of access due to opacity and difficulty of use. Apple has invested in making iPhone development feel
accessible to people who might not otherwise try to code for a mobile device, and it shows in the community that's sprung up around this operating system. Android is growing, and I dearly hope we have an Android event soon. But this is the reality: when we shopped the various Unite ideas around, iPhone OS developers seemed to bite more. Maybe we can convince them that journalism and journalistic principles are so awesome they should transition their development focus to a more open system. But that would be a much easier sell if we actually got to know them and knew what we were asking them to leave. This event gives me an opportunity to learn. (NOTE: The recent data--see this Marketwatch story
--also indicate that Android, as a platform, is edging out iPhone OS. This is why I bought an Android. But developer expertise follows market share, and right now I know more people who have worked on iPhone OS apps than who have worked on Android apps. The same mobile game building friend who told me about the iPhone OS's greater "bang for your buck" developing interactive mobile media also said he and his peers are keeping an eye on Android, and hoping to learn its ways soon. But right now the iPhone OS still seems like the easiest platform for us to run a 2 day camp that could be exciting, focused and productive.
3) Many media friends of mine
, who do cool things in media & journalism while simultaneously pondering all these deep issues, still seem to be excited about the iPad. It's a consumer device as much as a platform, and it's not going away. Why not see if there are ways to develop items in parallel, for instance? I am willing to play with these ideas for now. This dev camp gives me a chance to stay in the conversation and keep it rolling, rather than roll my eyes and leave it. Since I first drafted this note on Friday, Virginia Heffernan wrote an essay in the New York Times Magazine, comparing controlled App stores to the white flight to suburbia of the mid-centur
y, and while I don't completely agree, I do think there are some apt lessons to be drawn from the analogy. As a nation we are still suffering from the market repercussions of those large collective choices, and the crowd doesn't always realize the true power of its economic decisions. But the passion of the responses
to that essay is also a simple indication that smart and creative people will be working in the Apple app store, and I want to learn from them. Boycotting an event with iPhone OS developers would be like refusing to conduct any kind of social activism in the suburbs.
Really we just wanted to jump in and experiment with an event where we were doing something, not just talking. And yes, Maker Faire is awesome, but I've been there a bunch of times and I wanted to try something different this year. We haven't tied our necks to Steve Jobs's ball and chain. It's great to listen to the great developers I've met this weekend and the guardians of the free press at the same time. I'll be writing about how this dev camp has gone so far later today, but so far I'm glad I decided to help: there's a lot of creativity and energy here, and plenty of learning that we can carry over to other platforms.
(Note: this isn't my main site, currently, but it functions to hold a post! sahelidatta.com should be back up soon.)