the internet

Fri, Aug 7, 2009

I’ve been playing around on the iPod Touch for a bit, not being able to justify the extortionate cost of an iPhone when there’s almost no network coverage outside major conglomerations, certainly not out here among the mountains, even though parts of the area have better broadband than London. Half a meg down the copper is fine for me as I don’t care to watch HD films on a postage stamp sized screen or even on the laptop. Call me old fashioned but I like to grab a single malt and lie in front of the telly with a DVD. iPlayer is about as much internet telly as I can stomach after a full day coding at the byteface. Life is about contrasts and variety of experience.

Talking of which, there seems to be a rumble brewing in AppleLand, in the bizarre province called AppStoria. The citizens are in revolt. Apple has been pulling popular apps, censoring others, helping to drive down the cost of applications, fighting political battles and generally annoying developers who want to scratch a very small itchy market, like me! OK, I got valuable feedback from the rulers of AppStoria after they rejected it and I’ve been working on it to conform to their demands but I’m not overly motivated as it’s a free app and at any moment, I know it could just be pulled, well, because it can be, without reason. That’s what they do, don’t you know!

Then it occurred to me what I was witnessing. It was like watching the future according to 1984, V for Vendetta, The Matrix and Metropolis rolled into one. Apple have created a mini internet. An internet that runs in its own universe. The iPhone. Welcome to the iNternet.

The AppStore is what the internet would look like if governments, censors, police, loud mouthed public opinion groups and generally mentally unstable halfwits got their way. It would take a month or two to publish your community web site and without warning your ISP could just delete it if some tinpot objector had a gripe with it. You’d be in thrall to eMentalists policing the web for objectionable sites. The self righteous on digital crusades. It’d drive you to create a parallel universe.

To an open source contributor, AppStoria is an uncharted land. What magic resides there? No Camel trains bringing treasures from distant bazaars. Instead, hostile jostling crowds on the lookout for bargains in a vast plain of sellers, each at their own stall, peddling wares that vary in price from day to day, fluctuating according to the moods of the populace. At any moment, the AppStoria police could turn up and order you to dismantle your booth and up sticks to the desert.

Yet there are great riches to made in AppStoria too. You may have slaved long hours at the ByteForge and the thought of selling your creation for tuppence anathema but just look at the sheer number of people passing your stall. There are millions upon millions upon millions and that’s a lot of tuppences. Even after giving away your 30 pieces of silver from each sell to the governors of AppStoria, you are looking at riches unheard of to an open source initiate.

How long will this continue though? Apple may be raking in the dosh but they’re also putting their head above the wall and getting a bit of a bad name, almost in the same way Microsoft do. Buy an app from the store and you may find tomorrow it’s unusable. You may find that updates will never be made available as they don’t make it through the store. However, that’s never been said about Windows. You buy a PC and its your’s. You install what you want on it. You can pay for software or you can go for freebies but the point is, you can install what you like, when you like. OK, you can get into pretty serious bother doing that, what with viruses and the like but that freedom to do what you like with your property has spawned whole new businesses such as anti-virus companies. Microsoft created Windows and let the world create with it. Apple are trying to be all those spawned companies rolled into one. They’ll check the software before you install it. They’ll forbid you to use it if they think it’s not suitable any more. Think that’s not going to happen? It’s happened already with the Kindle fiasco where Amazon did a smash and grab on eBooks. The eBooks you paid for. They grabbed them back. Microsoft have never done that.

People complain vociferously that Windows ships with Internet Explorer, which is unfair to other browser vendors. This is just such an utterly pointless argument. You don’t hear this cry from cycle pedal manufacturers, when a top of the range carbon monocoque framed cycle is sold with flat pedals. Shimano don’t scream blue murder that Specialized are hogging the market in pedals. No. The pedals are there for you to ride your new steed to the nearest pedal shop, where you kit your bike with the best pedals you can afford. Everyone knows that. It’s the same concept in computers. IE is there. If you want a better browser, you use IE to go get it and you don’t use IE any more. Yet the other browser vendors shout that THEY should be on the PC. Why? What’s good about Safari? Nothing! Opera? Can’t stand it. Flock? ha! I use FireFox. I choose to use it. I don’t want it stuffed down my throat in the same way it’s stuffed down the throat of a novice PC buyer who just wants to surf the ‘net. This is has resulted in Windows 7 shipping with no browser. How is the novice user meant to get one now? Did the bullies think of that while they were trying to corner the market in their ad-spammed products?

There seems to be a new internet emerging. A commercially controlled internet where what you buy is not your property and it can be grabbed back or disabled on a whim. Where your browsing experience consists of installing endless ad blocker plugins for everything. The only chink of light may be the move from native mobile applications, under the control of the hardware vendor, to web based applications that have no such restrictions.

So what’s a developer to do? Invest time and effort in writing a native application that is open to commercial abuse and bullying, or jump on the web application bandwagon for a less than ideal user experience? Perhaps we’ll see new interfaces to things like the accelerometer appear but how responsive is that sort of application going to be, having to send real time orientation information over the web? It’s just never going to compete with a native app.

The future may be bright. Let’s hope it’s not white, or orange or any other specific colour or requires rarified oxygen to survive. Let’s hope we’re heading back to the multicoloured bazaar.

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