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 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.''

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Carolyn Duffy Marsan

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