The Danger of the New iPhone

Many people lust after the iPhone, but Jonathan Zittrain sees danger in the device.

Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-founder of its Berkman Center for Internet and Society, worries that closed appliances like the iPhone and walled gardens like Facebook will stifle the creativity that has fueled the development of the Internet. Tools such as PCs and the Net itself, which are open by nature and 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.

Zittrain wrote a book about his concerns, The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It. CIO Insight senior writer Edward Cone spoke with him about his thesis–and the reasons CIOs may find themselves on both sides of the issue.

CIOI: What’s the 50-cent tour of the generative concept?

Zittrain: Our current information technology ecosystem is generative–it welcomes contribution and code and content from pretty much any outsiders, even if they’re not that wealthy or accredited or anything else. That’s an unusual state of affairs. That’s not the only way to build an ecosystem. We stumbled into this one–some would say lucked into it–when we know that in the 1980s and 1990s we had proprietary networks like CompuServe and Prodigy and things like that. Those systems have security models that the Internet doesn’t have. The Internet barely has a measurement model; you can’t even tell how many people are hooked up to it, which is something that somebody at AOL could tell you in a heartbeat because AOL needs to know how many subscribers it has so it can send them a bill.

A PC is similarly open in that you can run any code you want on it, unlike, say, information appliances like the smart word processors of the 1980s that were built for one purpose, did it really well and that was it, which made them much more easy to maintain– a factor CIOs are very familiar with.

Not to be heretical when we’re discussing something as important as the future of innovation, but I’m thinking that a lot of CIOs might actually be nodding their heads in approval at the idea of walled gardens and appliances.

The CIO is particularly attuned to seeing the bad surprises that a generative system can give us. To CIOs, there’s a reason we call things mission-critical. They are the ones who know just how costly it is to manage a help desk, trying to help these users get out of all these things they do that they regret instantly, and that’s why they led the charge on lockdown. In the typical corporation today, the PCs are configured so you can’t just install a Flying Toaster screensaver, and with it expose your entire LAN to some kind of worm or Trojan or data-gathering bot. I don’t blame CIOs; it’s a best practice to keep the network locked down pretty thoroughly if there’s anything sensitive on it. It’s totally understandable, but it’s also unfortunate.

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