Zittrain vs. Apple: What About the User Experience?

by Steve Wildstrom   |   December 1st, 2011

Harvard Law School Prof. Jonathan Zittrain does not like the iPhone. Or the iPad.  Or  much of anything about the modern app economy.

Jonathan Zittrain phoyo

Jonathan Zittrain

In an article for MIT’s Technology Review, Zittrain takes up a theme he has been sounding for the past several years, bemoaning a loss of a golden age of software openness, when “anyone could write and run software for an operating system, and up popped an endless assortment of spreadsheets, word processors, instant messengers, Web browsers, e-mail, and games.” In the dystopian future Zittrain sees, “an unprecedented shift of power from end users and software developers on the one hand, to operating system vendors on the other” means the Apples, Googles,  and Microsofts of the world will control what you can do with your PCs, phones, and tablets and we’ll all be the worse for it.

Zittrain is a very smart and witty guy, but I think he is missing something very important. Nowhere in his article does the phrase, nor the concept of, “user experience” appear. Back in what Zittrain sees as the glory days of computing freedom, the user experience was horrible. The overwhelming majority of computer users–a far smaller segment of the population than they are today–weren’t writing their own software. They were struggling to figure out how to use the awful stuff they already had. The situation was so bad that in 1998, I worked with Clare-Marie Karat of IBM Research on a computer user’s bill of rights that focused on the most basic of usability issues.

The fact is that the many millions of people who have bought iPhones and iPads have made a choice. They have ceded to Apple the right to to choose what software their devices can run in exchange for a superior user experience. They don’t seem at all unhappy with the choice. Speaking for myself as an iPhone and iPad owner–and as someone who once upon a time wrote his own software–I’m perfectly happy to have someone keep the junk off my devices. I’m not always entirely happy with Apple’s choices, but I think it’s a good deal on the whole. I have spent way too much of my life cleaning up after really bad software.

I think there’s another important misconception that Zittrain perpetuates. He repeatedly refers to the 30% of the price that Apple claims as its share of App Store sales as the “Apple tax” (and ditto for the Google tax in the Android Market.) The fact is that 30% of the retail price is a lot less than developers had to give up in that mythical golden age when software came in boxes. Back then, they were lucky to get 10% after a publisher, a distributor, and a retailer all took their share–and that was only if they were lucky enough to get distribution in the first place.

An arrangement that takes care of marketing (to some extent) and distribution and still delivers 70% of the retail price to developers is better than anything they have ever had before. It has led to a massive outpouring of independent developer creativity unparalleled since the days of VisiCalc. The only complaints have come from vendors such as Amazon, which are basically resellers and don’t have 30 points of gross margin to share, and they have found their own workarounds. And from a few academics who value some abstract notion of software freedom above user experience.

 

 

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • Guest

    Zittrain is a fool. There is right now a resurgence of the golden age of software development. I remember the early eighties and the plethora of small game developers; it died; the market crashed; EA took over. Apple, with its App Stores, is recreating that. As a developer, I think this is wonderful. There will be more software written now, and by more people, because of the app stores rather than in spite of the app stores. Zittrain (and most “free software” advocates) have it exactly backwards. The app stores are allowing small developers to make a living writing software, and because of that, we will have more software and more developers than otherwise.

    • http://techpinions.com/about-tech-pinions/steve-wildstrom Steve Wildstrom

      Zittrain may be wrong–I think he is. But he is certainly no fool. He is a source of interesting and provocative ideas that I mostly disagree with, but that are always well thought out and effectively argued.

  • Wouter v. Dam

    He takes his time, but essentially what Zittrain does is explain how an active competitive physical distribution industry is evolving into a monopolistic digital distribution industry. And what consequences that has to society.

    Zittrain provides a warning about a realistic scenario. The question is, do we as consumers care enough about it? I think you and, more importantly, the success of Apple’s system, provide the proof that this is not the case at the moment.

    Monopolies are generally considered a bad thing. But the reason they can come into existence in the first place is because they offer – initially at least – great benefits – usually to both sides of the value chain / network it is positioned in. Their bad influence – from a societal perspective – stems from when they turn into barriers that hamper or even outright prevent change leading to new improvements.

    Zittrain is early with his warning, too early in my opinion, but I also think there is likely to come a time when he can say “Told you so!”. So I would say, don’t pay too much attention to Zittrain now, but do not forget about him and his warning entirely either.

    btw. It was fun to read that computer user’s bill of rights. Got me thinking back to the times when I was stuck with a PC. Of course, the list clearly suffers from a flaw in the conceptual thinking upon which it is based: It assumes the consumer knows exactly what he or she wants.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_C4LOVT26VG5TTOACNMX4WVQ6PM Fred Gehelmiholtzenstein

    Exactly what products (hardware and software) does Zittrain use on a daily basis? What brands of computer and cellphone? What applications from what vendors? His choices would provide valuable context for his position. Or perhaps undermine it.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t like creamed corn. But because I have a fine arts degree……. should anyone care? Bothers me that some PHD can have an view point should make a difference to the rest us. I like dark beer. Do you care?

  • http://www.facebook.com/kenberger Kenneth Berger

    His golden age was 80 ascii line text, it was very easy to program on because you did not have to think about how it would be displayed.
    I agree that it was fun to write programs in those days but would not trade that for a real UI. And what he does not take into account is that simple database (filemaker type) and spreadsheets are the modern version of user programing. Every formula you make in a spreadsheet is writing a program in the same sense as writing a line of Fortaran or basic, just easier.

    • http://techpinions.com/about-tech-pinions/steve-wildstrom Steve Wildstrom

      The era of do-it-yourself programming at the OS level ended for nearly everyone with Windows (it never existed on the Mac.) GUI programming was simply way to complicated and amateurs who could write something useful in BASIC or Turbo Pascal (or even command-line C) were stopped cold by the need to learn the interfaces of dozens of APIs. What’s happened is people are, as you noted, still doing programming, but all the plumbing is hidden.

  • fustian24

    A lot of this fethishization for Open Source comes from the anti-corporporate travellers of the left.

    They might have a point warning against corporations except that their big government solution is infinitely worse, as anyone that has ever dealt with the DMV would know.