Mountain Lion’s Gatekeeper Is Not a Slippery Slope

Apple’s announcement of Gatekeeper, an anti-malware component of the new version of OS X, has set off the predictable horrified reactions among tech bloggers. Many are warning that this is a step in Apple’s plot to turn the Mac into an iPhone-like walled garden. But the reactions seem to be made of up equal parts misinformation and paranoia.

Gatekeeper offers Mac users three options. At its most stringent, it will install only software downloaded from the Mac App Store. A middle setting allows downloads from anywhere, but will warn users against installing them unless the code has been signed by a registered Mac developer. The third option is essentially the pre-Mountain Lion status quo: Anything is allowed.

Much of the criticism focuses on the dialog generated by unsigned code when using the middle option. It warns that the code “has not been signed by a recognized developer.  You should move it to the trash.” At Gizmodo, Casey Chan writes: “But Gatekeeper could also be interpreted as Apple heavily discouraging less savvy users from installing non-Mac App Store apps entirely. It’s one step away from turning the current app freedom on the Mac into the app dictatorship of iOS.

At BoingBoing,  Rob Bechizza opines:

“At this point, the thing that unnerves me is not the prospect of Gatekeeper as a crude tool to herd OS X developers into a walled garden and crush freedom. It’s the fact that code-controlling technologies tend to have unintended consequences that harm, rather than guarantee, the quality of user experiences.

“The prospect of Apple becoming a desktop control freak, going full Sony on its own community to stop it using software the way it has for thirty years? Fun, but let’s wait until it actually happens.

“The truth is that Macs don’t currently suffer much from malicious software, and DRM-esque lockouts are always circumvented. So what’s the point of a DRM-esque system for malware prevention? A more pleasingly cynical answer is that it’s a marketing move, aimed as much at analyst-fed Mac malware hysterics in the tech press as it is at real threats. For everyday users, Gatekeeper’s more likely to echo the good old days of Vista’s “Cancel or Allow” than to save them from themselves.”

This is wrong on several levels. First, malware is a very real problem. It may not be much of one on Macs today, but the  increasingly murky swamp that is the Android app market should serve as a warning. Second, raising the issue of digital rights management is a complete red herring. Gatekeeper has nothing to do with DRM, whose purpose is to restrict unauthorized copying of content or to limit its use to specific devices. He is guilty of the very fear-mongering he accuses Apple of.

Give Apple a little credit for understanding  the difference between a Mac and an iOS device. At the introduction of the iPad, Steve Jobs compared the iPads to cars and Macs to trucks. His point was that a car is all most people need, but people who build stuff need trucks. As analogies go, this isn’t a bad one. And the people who need Macs need the freedom to choose their own software.

Another important point that seems to be getting lost: Developer approval, unlike inclusion in the App Store, does not imply that Apple has looked at the software itself. Anyone can become a registered  Apple developer by paying $99 a year and getting code approved for Gatekeeper’s middle option requires only that developers digitally sign their apps. This allows an app to be traced back to its author and lets Apple de-register developers who distribute bad code. Can this be abused? Of course. But it is on the whole a very good thing to add accountability to app distribution.

Finally, the “walled garden” charge is a bit silly because of how easy Apple makes it to change Gatekeeper settings. It’s just a click on the Security & Privacy system preference. This may sound  elitist but I am going to say it anyway. As I tweeted yesterday, anyone who cannot figure out how to change the setting probably needs the greatest protection. Anyone who doesn’t know enough about their Mac to change a simple preference needs someone to curate their software choices.