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How the iPhone is killing the 'Net

Oxford professor argues in new book that shift from PCs to appliances, appalling cybersecurity will slow innovation

By , Network World
April 09, 2008 04:22 PM ET

Network World - Is the iPhone killing the 'Net? That’s the question posed by Oxford University Professor Jonathan Zittrain in his new book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It

Zittrain is a bona fide member of the digiterati -- a cyberlaw scholar with multiple degrees from Yale and Harvard. He is the Professor of Internet Government and Regulation at Oxford University and co-founder of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. His latest book is due for release April 14.


2 p.m.- 3 p.m. ET, Monday, April 28

Join Jonathan Zittrain April 28 at 2 p.m. EST for a live Network World chat in which he will answer your questions about why the iPhone (and gadgets like it) harm the Internet.


Zittrain argues that today’s Internet appliances such as the iPhone and Xbox hamper innovation. That’s because these locked-down devices prohibit the kind of tinkering by end users that made PCs and the Internet such a force of economic, political and artistic change.

Zittrain understands why appliances are attractive to the average Internet user. They’re neatly packaged, they’re easy to use, and they’re reliable.

``We have grown weary not with the unexpected cool stuff that the generative PC had produced, but instead with the unexpected very uncool stuff that came along with it,’’ he writes. ``Viruses, spam, identity theft, crashes: all of these were the consequences of a certain freedom built into the generative PC. As these problems grow worse, for many the promise of security is enough reason to give up that freedom.’’

Zittrain argues that if the cybersecurity situation doesn’t improve, we will migrate to a different kind of Internet. The new Internet will have as its endpoints tethered appliances such as iPhones, which are controlled by their manufacturers, instead of open, changeable PCs attached to an open network that can foster the next round of disruptive innovation. (See our slideshow of iPhone clones.)

``The future is not one of generative PCs attached to a generative network. It is instead of appliances tethered to a network of control,’’ he warns.

Zittrain doesn’t predict that PCs will become extinct any time soon. But he worries that PCs are being locked down and prohibited from running open source code that has driven much of the Internet’s new functionality.

``If the security problems worsen and fear spreads, rank-and-file users will not be far behind in preferring some form of lockdown -- and regulators will speed the process along,’’ Zittrain says. What we will lose in this transition is ``a world where mainstream technology can be influenced, even revolutionized, out of left field.’’

Zittrain’s book traces the history of the general-purpose PC and how it surpassed mainframe terminals and niche devices such as word processors. The strength of the PC, he says, is that it was designed to run third-party software instead of only software written by the manufacturer.

``The more outside developers there were writing new code, the more valuable a computer would become to more people,’’ he wrote.

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