The Economist has a blog post (2 years old!) regarding freedom & user-convenience. It’s nice to see the author string together various contexts suffering under the same problem (from e-med records to the everyman’s Mac/Win choice). But this is a common issue at hand, and actually, one which theologians are often faced with.
I recently considered this parallel-force with regards to bureaucracies: Jobs, being the CEO of Apple, does so with a force and clarity unlike many other CEOs. As to the final product though, this clarity develops into a product which, as noted by The Economist’s blogger, has a lower interference-to-goal-completion rate than does other systems (Windows crashing, or Linux requiring futzing).
So the point of contention is one of freedom in the contexts of either (a) the system itself (means) or (b) the task at hand (the goals). Most software-libertarians are entirely focused on ‘a’: the software must be free/open/interoperable. Few users care, they just want the system to not interfere with everythingelseinlife. And for this, the users are right: computers are a tool to support my living, not a way of living or achieving life. (Though I would, in the long-term agree with the software libertarians, that software run through capitalism isn’t best for the users, just best for capitalism itself!)
So this freedom, if not in the system itself, but of my freedom to get on with other things, is a slipperiness of computing. Not ubiquity, but ease-of-transition. It’s a psychological space that is freed, both of memory and of trust (that I can find again what I am entrusting to the computer).
Market economists will say that the users/buyers will have a say with their dollars as to which is most useful for them. But the embedded-into-other-software-and-hardware quality of either the Mac or Windows platform (and the non-embedded quality of the Linux platform) is beyond what users can choose. The debate then, if one is to debate markets & choice, is one of the supra-OS platform: of the whole range of software and devices which are Windows supported (and how well they are supported) vs. the whole range of Mac devices and software that exists. In these terms, we could almost set iTunes to be a parallel force, almost antagonistic towards the MacOS. iTunes might as well be parallel also with Google’s constellation of websites. Owning an Android phone, I don’t need iTunes to sync, my email, news, contacts, etc all sync to Google’s sites directly. The point: Operating Systems aren’t the “top dog” anymore (Jobs seems to forget this: requiring all iDevices to sync). They are being pushed aside into their own niche: the ailing desktop, or better yet, the workstation. Yes, I do believe this is the end of the “PC” (desktop) era, though all-in-ones are a weird mutant of a workstation with a TV (watch for that to mutate into something usable, or to die off as well).
Anyways, freedom. It’s not much freedom if the alternatives aren’t competitive on the same scale. It’s hard to quantify, but all the Mac-converts of the world know this to be so. Windows just slows down over time, and becomes much less stable. There’s crapware for every install, printer or otherwise. Not the freedom which users want from their devices, rather it’s part of the burden of ownership which most users would be happy to throw back on the company who produced their sad, dying relic of a happier, more functional day (disposal strategy=embrace more personal freedom=find a more functional system).
Sigh. The freedom to live a life at-will, unencumbered by the tools we use has always been the dream. Apple sets forth the level of entry & exit into their software; and with systems so advanced, integrating the hardware, software & millions of printers & wireless devices and cell phones is nearly impossible. Selecting a sub-set to focus on makes the most sense (which is where proprietary systems come into play). This God-level choice-for-the-user is exactly where theology comes into play, and where the anti-marginalization focus of PostModernism also weaves in. Never before in history have so many people been clueless as to “how things are” and therefore the need for revisiting the purpose of them, be it relationships, work/life balance, role of the novel.. all these things are not defined for us as much as we now realize the power we have to define them about us. That was the 90′s. Now, most people have given up on the details, the existential dread, the worry over what-is and now focus on that-is which is before them. Superficial? Sure. Functional? Yup. To wit: were the 90′s more functional or dysfunctional? I think we know the answer.
So these God-level choices regarding how we enter and exit software in our lives.. how is this not the same as the God-level choice of where and to whom we are born? I didn’t choose my SES, but it is how I entered and will exit the world. Heh, the world-as-software.
So have I any recommendations? Microsoft’s failure to provide a smooth-curve of entry, duration and exit into software from life is not just Apple’s future, but Google’s opportunity. Truly Google is competing with iTunes, not Apple’s MacOS or Microsoft’s Windows. Amazon is also trying, but the point-of-entry is so broad, that iTunes-replacing-and-syncing software as well as mobile-syncing apps is now a basic requirement. How iTunes will develop must be in terms of data-interoperability, lest Apple become Google (which is impossible). But Google, what shall you become? You have some devices, and there is little left but more devices: for both viewing and syncing/uploading (Google needs as many sensory/”feeling” organs in the real world as possible). Phones are just the beginning. Appliances, pets & energy providers will be coming soon. We already see some roughed-in framework now. Microsoft’s death will be based not just on a failure to provide the platform others are already excelling at, but on a failure of trust of buyers. People already expect Microsoft’s computers to be USDA Grade-B, capitalist beef-cows.
So I guess I agree with the Economist’s blog: “In these contexts, opposition to quality centralised design doesn’t make you freer. It just leaves you confused and helpless, and forces you to spend much of your time figuring out how to accomplish basic tasks, rather than doing the great things you wanted to do with your computer/life.” The only difference, is this assumes there are alternatives on the market, which for now, there are.. sort of. Once you’re Mac-ified, you’re “in”, and switching platforms is tough. The joy of vertical-market integration.