John Gruber posted a piece on Friday that is a must read for people who are interested in mobile computing, noting an absence of killer apps for Android. In it he talks about some reasons why, despite the strengths of the platform, we’re not seeing developers create unique, compelling applications for it. I don’t use an Android device, so it could be that Gruber’s argument rests on a shaky foundation, but it seems right to me from what I’ve read.
What I want to talk about, though, is a sort of “third freedom” when it comes to computing. The first freedom, referred to as Freedom 0 by Mark Pilgrim, is the freedom to “run the program, for any purpose.” Back in the day, people called it “libre” software to distinguish it from software that’s free in the “free beer” sense. That’s the second freedom. Software that’s free to download and install — freeware.
Obviously Apple’s iOS does not represent Freedom 0 in any way. You use it on Apple’s devices, under Apple’s terms, or not at all. Yes, you can jailbreak your phone but that is considered completely out of bounds. For the most part, Apple seems to see Freedom 0 as a negative. As far as the second freedom goes, some iOS software is freeware, some isn’t.
What Apple offers in exchange for giving up Freedom 0 (and they ask not only end users but also developers to give it up) is a new freedom for computer users — the freedom to install stuff on your computer without screwing things up. Freedom 0 is about giving you the right to screw up your computer in whatever way you see fit. Apple’s freedom is about giving you the opportunity to install any of thousands of applications with the knowledge that your phone will work just as well after you install them as it did before, and that you can get rid of those applications whenever you want.
Hackers and power users see this as a bad tradeoff, but I would imagine that for many users, this tradeoff is completely worth it. Ask any of the people who pay Geek Squad hundreds of dollars to disinfect their PCs whether they’d give up some of the freedom to do what they like to their PC in exchange for never having to deal with those sorts of problems again.
The iPhone was a huge hit before you could install apps for it at all, so it’s not as though this third freedom was the key to its success, but it’s clear that it is the key to the success for third party developers for iOS. It’s why people are willing to go through all of the pain of dealing with the App Store approval process to get their software onto the iOS platform.
The vast majority of users don’t want to be systems administrators any more than most drivers want to be mechanics. Apple has already built one successful platform that offers users the opportunity to avoid that responsibility, and it looks like they’re trying to bring that model to personal computing as well. I wouldn’t bet against them at this point.