How the iPhone is killing the 'Net

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

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.

Zittrain records the same phenomenon with networks, as the open Internet surpassed proprietary networks like the telephone system, AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy. For example, it took the break-up of the AT&T monopoly for third parties to create new devices such as answering machines, fax machines and dial-up modems. The Internet, on the other hand, had an open design and a philosophy of sharing and trust that fostered development from outsiders.

Zittrain argues that today’s era of generative PCs combined with a generative Internet is coming to an end. By generative, he means systems that can be leveraged to many tasks, are adaptable to a range of uses, easy to master, accessible to many and allow for changes to be easily transferred.

``The status quo is drawing to a close, confronting us -- policymakers, entrepreneurs, technology providers and, most importantly, Internet and PC users -- with choices we can no longer ignore,’’ he writes.

What’s driving the change in status quo? The appalling state of cybersecurity. In Chapter 3 of his book, Zittrain compiles a succinct history of worms, malware, botnets and other threats that have exploded on the Internet during the last decade. Zittrain argues that one of two things will happen in the future: either a watershed security moment such as a digital Pearl Harbor; or death by a thousand small security breaches. Either scenario will bring an end to the generative PC/Internet combo and will harken an era of controlled appliances.

Zittrain says society will pay a steep price for securing the 'Net.

``If the PC ceases to be at the center of the information technology ecosystem, the most restrictive aspects of information appliances will come to the fore,’’ he predicts.

Zittrain makes a compelling argument for the benefits of the generative PC/Internet combination. He says generative systems foster innovation -- particularly disruptive innovation -- while nongenerative systems such as appliances provide ease of use and security.

Zittrain says tinkerers have created most of the 'Net’s key innovations -- free Web-based e-mail, hosting services, instant messaging, social networking and search engines -- which were created by individuals or groups of hobbyists rather than leading IT manufacturers. The same trend is happening with content, as Internet users democratize the creation of political commentary, music and movies that were previously controlled by the publishing, recording and movie industries.

``Generativity at the technical layer can lead to new forms of expression for other layers to which nonprogrammers contribute -- culture, political, social, economic and literary,’’ he writes. All of which is at risk if there’s a significant lockdown of the Internet’s technical infrastructure, he says.

Manufacturer control

Besides loss of generativity, tethered appliances are a threat because they can be controlled remotely by manufacturers. The iPhone, for example, seeks out and erases user modifications. Zittrain finds it ominous that appliance manufacturers can change these products after end users have bought and installed them. He says this feature of appliances creates an increased threat of intervention by regulators.

``The most obvious evolution of the computer and network -- toward tethered appliancization -- is on balance a bad one,’’ he writes. ``It invites regulatory intervention that disrupts a wise equilibrium that depends upon regulators acting with a light touch, as they traditionally have done within liberal societies.’’

Zittrain cites three ways that manufacturers can control tethered appliances: preemption, meaning that they can design against particular uses; specific injunction, meaning they can remotely change the product in response to legal action such as a court order; or surveillance, meaning they can use the appliance to provide information about the end user to the manufacturer. Zittrain points out that the FBI can eavesdrop on any automobile with an OnStar navigation system just as it can turn a cell phone into a microphone. Similarly, makers of digital video recording systems can cause a feature to self-destruct if required to do so in a patent infringement law suit.

Web 2.0 threat

Zittrain sees similar threats with software-as-a-service Web sites, which he says are less generative than original PC software. With these Web 2.0 applications, PCs become dumb terminals merely running the Web browser, while all the functionality and data is hosted by the service provider. The end user has no control over changes made to the application. For example, Google could cancel its GoogleMaps service at any time, which would affect many mapping applications that were built on this service.

``The key move to watch is a sea change in control over the endpoint: lock down the device, and network censorship and control can be extraordinarily reinforced,’’ he warns.

As an alternative to tethered appliances and Web 2.0 sites, Zittrain offers up the community-oriented approach of Wikipedia for solving the cybersecurity dilemma. In Chapter 6, Zittrain offers a glowing review of Wikipedia, from its humble origins to its success as one of the Internet’s most popular Web sites. What Zittrain likes about Wikipedia is that it has few rules, it has a transparent process for editing articles, it fosters discussion, and it has a core of dedicated participants.

``Wikipedia rejects straightforward democracy, favoring discussion and consensus over outright voting, thereby sidestepping the kinds of ballot-stuffing that can take place in a digital environment," Zittrain says. He favors the self-governance model of Wikipedia along with the fact that it fosters ``netizenship.’’

Zittrain also writes favorably about the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet’s premier standards body, which focuses on rough consensus and running code. Zittrain likes that the IETF favors better ``community ethics and policing’’ in light of security breaches, rather than locked down appliances.

``Wikipedia shows us that the naivete of the Internet’s engineers in building generative network technology can be justified not just at the technical layer of the Internet, but at the content layer as well,’’ Zittrain says .``The idiosyncratic system that has produced running code among talented (and some not-so-talented) engineers has been replicated among writers and artists.’’ 

How to preserve the 'Net’s strengths

Zittrain explores several ways for the Internet to keep its generative features while also improving its stability. One of these ideas is virtual machines, which would allow end users to segregate data that needs to be kept secure in one virtual machine while keeping another virtual machine open to innovation. Another idea is tool kits that allow end users to volunteer their PCs to help detect and patch vulnerabilities. These tool kits would allow Internet users to work together to improve cybersecurity.

``It is easy for Internet users to see themselves only as consumers whose participation is limited to purchasing decisions that together add up to a market force pushing one way or another,’’ he writes. ``But with the right tools, users can also see themselves as participants in the shaping of generative space -- as netizens.’’

Zittrain acknowledges that tethered appliances and Web 2.0 sites are here to stay. In order to maintain a balance between locked-down endpoints and the generative PCs that he favors, Zittrain recommends open, collaborative solutions like wikis, blogs and social networks to address such problems as cybersecurity and privacy.

``Our fortuitous starting point is a generative device on a neutral 'Net in tens of millions of hands. To maintain it, the users of those devices must experience the 'Net as something with which they identify and belong,’’ he concludes. ``We must use the generativity of the 'Net to engage a constituency that will protect and nurture it. That constituency must be drawn from the ranks of a new generation able to see that technology is not simply a video game designed by someone else, and that content is not simply what is provided through a TiVo or iPhone.’’

Zittrain’s book is interesting, but it isn’t an easy read. He has an academic writing style that forces the reader to re-read some paragraphs before the meaning is clear. Although reading it requires some persistence, the book poses some thought-provoking ideas about the trade-off between convenience and innovation on the Internet.

IT professionals will like this book because it’s brimming with gratitude for geeks, hobbyists and other tinkerers who know how to leverage the openness and flexibility of PCs and the Internet. And it’s a call to arms to these folks not to succumb to the ease of iPhones, Blackberries and Google Apps.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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