Perens: The iPhone is Destroying Democracy (And Open Source)

Perens: The iPhone is Destroying Democracy (And Open Source)

The iPhone is Australia’s most popular smartphone, and it’s very much in evidence at 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:

If JavaScript was sufficient to meet the issue, there wouldn’t be apps today. We need a better solution than HTML5 provides.

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!


  • I agree with some things, but I think he’s slightly out of touch with others. Like, where he said open source needs to get in touch with the common man. I’m sorry, but the other day my 65 year old father was buying a Sumsung GalaxyTab 10.1 instead of an iPad because he “doesn’t like Apple’s politics”, then he asks me when they’re coming out with Linux on a tablet.

    While he may not have understood that Android IS linux (and he was pleasantly surprised to learn it was), he a) asked the questions in the first place and b) is obviously willing to look for alternatives to closed source.

    I wouldn’t count open source out of the fight just yet…

    • So basically, you just proved to everyone here that this article is misleading and that the iPhone wont take over….why?
      When there is no choice, then we start to worry.

      • You’re exactly right. Choice is good. What’s your point? Did you think that I was trying to imply that there should be ONLY open source? I guess interperating my comments in that way was your choice. My comment was meant to point out that people aren’t as stupid as Bruce Perens thinks. They are capable of making informed choices, whatever they are.

      • The problem is not the choice its the peer pressure behind. All the way from kindy to high school peer pressure is there think back. Kids are starting now with iphones in schools I know people with droids are bagged out. Get them young. We are in deep trouble with this fad my man.

  • I get this. I got an iPhone knowing that it locks me into certain things. And I’ve spent years fiddling and hacking gadgets just so I can get them to do *exactly* what I want, but life is too short to be doing that and you have to keep uptating your geek skills to do it. I got an iPhone cos it’s easy to use and has very easy sync options. There’s an odd feature that it doesn’t have like my old Nokia did, but nothing to lose sleep over. The bottom line is that it makes it easier to communicate with others and I use a number of apps on a daily basis. The user interface is sleek and intuitive. I’m sure open source will survive just fine. If there are more than 2 people on the planet then you are already living under some sort of constraint. So what?

  • I agree with the spirit of Peren’s idea, but not the specifics: it isn’t iPhone that’s destroying democracy, it’s apathy. Presented with a “good enough” solution, people will all too often take it rather than dump it and go search for something better. I don’t hold Apple’s success against it, and iPhones are great pieces of kit. But what Peren is talking about is the “symptom”, not the “condition”.

  • Finally some good talk on this critical issue. While I possibly won’t be articulate this well, it seems that open source has similar issues to the Occupy movements, lots of talk and ideas going in lots of different directions. How to have “open” rules?
    Honestly, I’m impressed by the strides Microsoft have made recently. Metro UI and minimum hardware requirements seem to facilitate a functional base to build from. I’m not saying it’s anything close to a solution but at least a step in the right direction.

  • Agreed on everything he said. Apple kills innovation where its needed most and patent hogs whatever they can to stifle competition or bully others via lawsuits.If only Android would get its act together with better apps…

    • The apps will come when it isn’t so hard to write an app for android. How many different phones and screen resolutions are there in Android compared to Apple? Apple make it easy so therefore they have the apps.

      I moved from Android to an iPhone because I just wanted something that worked. No bugs. No rooting needed and custom firmwares. No waiting for the carrier to release the latest firmware. I’m all for open source but it needs to be controlled.

      People use Apple because apple give them a simple, easy solution. They make it as easy as possible for the user to achieve what they want without zillions of other options to confuse them.

  • Perens is so out of touch with reality it’s painful.
    The simple thing is that most people don’t care about open source. They just want a phone that works. Most people who buy an Android powered phone don’t care about open source. They just want a phone that works.
    Most people who buy a phone don’t care about any of this. They just want a phone that works. They select one based on decisions that have nothing to do with open source, Android, iOS, or anything else like that.
    They just want a phone that does what they want it to do. Why is this so hard to understand?
    However, it is funny that HTC et al seems to think that the way to success is to release a new model every 5 days. Apple’s success shows that it’s not necessary to do this. They just provide new user facilities, rather than a slew of models.

    • I love how you say Perens is out of touch with reality and then state “most people don’t care about open source”, when the article you are commenting on quotes Perens saying “open source has mostly not built a relationship with the common person and does not have their sympathy”, which is exactly what you just said but apparently with too many words for you to read.

      • Actually, if you read my post, I say the same thing but in a simpler way that can clearly be understood. Perens is bombastic and simply doesn’t understand the real world. Too much academia and not enough real world experience.
        He’s spent too much time with Eric Raymond and his ranting about open source.

  • Being a person not employed in the IT industry, I remember being astounded when the iPhone came out and I first learned about how all the apps and software are controlled by apple.

    “So you mean I can’t just download something that somebody’s put together… it has to go through apple?”
    IT friend: “Yep”

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