How the iPhone is killing the 'Net

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

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.

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Carolyn Duffy Marsan

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