Zittrain vs. Apple: What About the User Experience?

on December 1, 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.