The iPhone is Australia’s most popular smartphone, and it’s very much in evidence at Linux.conf.au 2012 in Ballarat. But in the opening keynote for the conference, leading open source advocate Bruce Perens argued that the continued success of the iPhone threatens not just the potential success of open source, but the future of democracy
Having noted that the iPhone has been massively popular, Perens then went on to explain his concerns about it. Here’s a transcript of his basic argument:
People don’t understand that their iPhones also constrain them. Part of their function is to not do what you want. Most people increasingly live in a world of constraint. The devices they have actually constrain them from doing things. What’s the harm in having an iPhone or iPad that doesn’t do what you want? What’s the harm in being a slave to that tool? It is that you are a slave to whoever controls that tool. News and political discourse are mediated by software, and they’re going to be even more mediated. We trust an astonishingly few companies to be intermediaries between information and the user.
This is a familiar line of reasoning to anyone worried (for example) by Apple’s tight regulation of app content and refusal to allow “competitors” to its own platforms. But while many people who feel that way embrace open source alternatives — or at least more open platforms such as Android — Perens argued that open source as an overall approach simply doesn’t appeal to the masses:
Open source is the only credible producer of software that isn’t bound to a single company’s economic interest. [But] open source has mostly not built a relationship with the common person and does not have their sympathy. There are a lot of people who believe we are the ones who make viruses. We have not been able to protect our own future by reforming law that is hostile to it. We have to reach the common man. We haven’t yet developed the sympathy for users that is manifested by Apple. We do very good inward facing. We work very well with each other. It is the outside world I want you think about. It’s up to the rest of us to build bridges with normal folk.
Perens went further and noted that the massive popularity of mobile apps is undermining open source, sometimes by depriving it of income opportunities:
Open source is being sold as apps to people who don’t even know they could get the same thing for free elsewhere . . . We are seeing some signs that Linux and open source have peaked. The locked-down platform is beating us in many ways today.
Perens also rejected the suggestion that the rise of HTML5 will eventually see the mobile app paradigm disappear in favour of rich mobile sites:
Obviously, at an open source conference, it would be surprising to hear someone arguing we should all embrace Apple’s closed ecosystem and write apps forever. But Perens wasn’t presenting a happy, shiny version of the future for open source systems either. What’s your reaction?
PS Apologies for the picture — I forgot my good camera!