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Strong opinions, weakly held

A third kind of freedom

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.

50 Comments

  1. I’m more than comfortable saying that I don’t think that Gruber is the best person to make a judgment on if there is or isn’t a killer Android app.

    Apple knew that for iTunes to be a success, it has to be on both Windows and OS/X. Likewise Google places its killer apps on both Android and iOS. Indeed, Apple knew that it was key to allow Google Voice to be on iOS.

    One more twist being that Apple released a CDMA iPhone, when they were initially planning on waiting for LTE.

    I think, given the fact that Android came more or less “after” iOS, it’s unlikely that someone developing for Android is going to forgo iOS out of anything other than spite.

    I’ll ask the opposite question: What’s the killer iOS app not available on android? iTunes?

  2. “Freedom 0” isn’t a term coined by Mark Pilgrim, but rather a fundamental component of the free software definition.

  3. Gruber’s argument is entirely on a shaky foundation. He explicitly rules out any Android application that can’t be run on iOS. That excludes real, must-have apps like Locale and Swype, neither of which is possible on an iPhone and (the former at least) I can’t imagine not having anymore.

    The problem with your take on Apple’s stance is that you assume having their version of freedom isn’t compatible with Freedom 0. But “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” describes my Android phone just as much as it describes an iPhone.

  4. Like Thomas, I don’t see how Freedom 0 and your third freedom are mutually exclusive. An Android app install has never screwed anything up on my phone and I haven’t heard that complaint from anyone else.

  5. This is a poor reframing, and an abuse of the word freedom. I’ve never, ever worried about installing something on my Android phone. There are plenty of Market reviews and comments for virtually every app out there, and they tell you what permissions they’ll use. And without that pesky freedom of speech, we can finally be free from being offended! This FUD, pure and simple, and the kind of crappy writing that leads me to completely lose respect for the person writing it.

  6. I’m more interested in a discussion of whether Freedom 0 and freedom from worrying about systems administration are mutually incompatible than I am about whether Android is good or bad. Android is good. I like Android. It’s incredibly successful. I’m not attacking Android.

  7. Then you’ve answered your own question. Clearly, they’re not mutually incompatible.

  8. Do you have any examples of platforms that adhere to Freedom 0 and also are also liberating in the sense that they do not require, for lack of a better word, maintenance?

  9. What part of Android does not qualify for that statement?

  10. http://techcrunch.com/2010/10/30/top-30-android-apps/

    The existence of “Advanced Task Manager” and “CacheMate for Root Users” in the top apps list leads me to believe that some maintenance may improve your experience on Android.

  11. “The existence of ‘Advanced Task Manager’ and ‘CacheMate for Root Users’ in the top apps list leads me to believe that some maintenance may improve your experience on Android.”

    You forgot “Lookout” from that same link, which makes the point even more clearly.

  12. I’ll also point out that applications like DroidWall and AVG do nothing to convince me that Android is free of maintenance and worry. Add into it the scatter-shot way that applications seem to treat my SD card and I’d say there’s a bit of worry on our hands relating to the installation of Android apps.

  13. “Apple released a CDMA iPhone, when they were initially planning on waiting for LTE”

    1. They haven’t released a CDMA iPhone yet.
    2. What on earth does that have to do with the relative merits of controlled mobile operating systems?
  14. @Thomas

    What part of Android does not qualify for that statement? There very fact that anti-virus or malware software, that process managers and such, even /exist/ for Android sets of warning bells for me. The list of TechCrunch Top 10 Android Apps includes “…Root Explorer (a file system manager), Advanced Task Manager (a process monitor/killer), a collection of home screen widgets, SetCPU for Root Users (a hack for overclocking your device’s CPU), and CacheMate for Root Users (for manually managing system caches).” Home screen widgets, sure, but why is the rest of that even remotely popular?

    Not that Android doesn’t have a ton going for it mind you. But on freed up devices (don’t forget that most Android devices are massively locked down, just like iOS) there is clearly at least some people concerned about stuff like manually killing troublesome applications.

    @Jason!

    I’ll ask the opposite question: What’s the killer iOS app not available on android? Are you serious? Like, massive numbers of videogames for starters? I mean, it’s hard to know where to even start here.

  15. Why do these freedoms have to be in opposition? Why can’t Apple provide a platform where third-party applications are properly sandboxed? On a desktop computer you can download and run applications written to a number of platforms (HTML5, Flash, Java, Silverlight, Air) that all provide a sandboxed environment for running programs safely.

    Yes, such environments sometimes leak and cause security violations (Flash and ActiveX are infamous in that regard) but properly implemented users should be able to run programs from third parties without approval AND without messing up their systems.

  16. Matt: “There are plenty of Market reviews and comments for virtually every app out there, and they tell you what permissions they’ll use.”

    That’s a geek argument, though. Consumers should not have to research app permissions. They shouldn’t have to micromanage to that extent. There is a great strength for the non-geeks in Apple’s ability to make things “just work”.

    The article is quite correct. Freedom’s have been traded and it’s a fair trade, I think. Not for everyone, of course.

  17. Amazing. Android users simply don’t get what the author is saying and are completely blinded by the notion that because the OS is open source then their phone is as well.

  18. Ah, and the Gruber commenters arrive.

    The existence of utility applications for Android doesn’t actually make them necessary, or even desirable. Task killers, for example, are a bad idea. They’re a placebo effect at best, invented and used by people who don’t understand how Android works. Most of the Android developers I know do not support users who are running task killers.

    Regardless, that’s a nice sleight of hand, to use the existence of optional utilities as an argument against platform freedom. But wait: with iOS 4, Apple included a built-in task killer in the quick task menu! Surely you’ll all decry iOS’s maintenance burden now?

    Rafe’s post put forward two criteria: the phone has to run as well after installation as before, and uninstalls have to leave the OS state in pristine condition. Both of these are as true of Android as they are of iPhone. Frankly, they were largely true of PalmOS, too, but nobody’s got love for that anymore.

    At the same time, Apple’s model is only a guarantee of stress-free computing if you have a very narrow definition of “stress free.” It’s more like “the appearance of stress free.” iPhone apps can still behave in malicious ways without breaking the phone’s security model–they can (and have) sent user information to third parties, or opened up security holes that weren’t caught by the store. Apple bans these when they find out, but Google does the same thing.

    Indeed, the halting problem pretty clearly implies that that’s all they’ll ever be able to really do. You can’t prove that a piece of software isn’t malicious–spyware code could be activated by a timer, or downloaded and run on an embedded interpreter, or called from a second application… any number of ways to sneak past the App Store reviewers. At least an Android application has to tell you what capabilities it will use (access contact info, use services that cost money, read and write SD card) before you install it.

  19. @Jason: Easy: Netflix. Why isn’t it available on Android? Because Android’s openness compromises the kind of security that the people who arrange content deals need to feel comfortable licensing their content for such devices.

  20. @Jason:

    I’ll ask the opposite question: What’s the killer iOS app not available on android?
    1. Netflix
    2. OmniGraffle
    3. RedLaser (this is notably better than the Amazon app)
    4. iMovie or even anything that comes remotely close to being a usable video editor
    5. Soulver
    6. Instapaper or a quality app that works with the Instapaper API.

    In additions to those, there’s also a sever lack of anything decent in the way of a drawing app. Brushes and AutoDesk Sketchbook are amazing. There’s no peer on the Android platoform. Also, there’s no quality music editors — nothing on par with Xewton’s Music Studio.

    Overall, I’d say Android is a fine platform for consuming media, but I it’s not as good as iOS for creating media.

  21. If Android doesn’t require maintenance, then why do apps like Lookout exist?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xWFQujrcGCc

  22. @thomas

    “You can’t prove that a piece of software isn’t malicious–spyware code could be activated by a timer, or downloaded and run on an embedded interpreter, or called from a second application…”

    Virus checkers do just that. They mostly rely on a database of known malware but they also know what sorts of generic suspicious things to scan for as well. Apple has it even easier. Since they control the platform and APIs rigidly, they can both scan any incoming apps for anything suspicious (XCode already scans for memory leaks) as well as implement runtime checks as they do with location services.

    And, of course, there is only one iOS App Store. It’s all very well Google pulling malware from their Android store but every carrier and their dog has their own store now – and carriers demonstrably care as little as possible about their users.

  23. The part where apps you get from the Android marketplace do not pass through any sort of review process, and you’re entirely on your own in case it screws up your system?

  24. Virus checkers have solved the halting problem? Amazing. I guess that’s why botnets don’t exist anymore.

  25. Saying that Jailbreaking is “out of bounds” in a discussion like this, has never made sense to me – because anyone really interested in Freedom 0, is going to have the technical ability to get it if desired. Freedom 0 was never about promise of support from a vendor for the right to install anything, it was always about the right to do anything you want and that’s it.

    Also, Developers do not give up the same right as users. We have a kind of intermediate freedom, in that we can install applications that do whatever is possible within a Sandbox, with no deployment restrictions at all.

  26. @Thomas

    shrug I didn’t say it was perfect, only that it was possible.

  27. Every Android owner I know personally has at some point found an app on their phone to be causing an issue. The same cannot be said for iOS owners.

    That is the core of this argument. I know their are plenty who have not had issues on android but I assure you, their are problems with the anything goes app distribution Android uses.

  28. @Thomas: I’d written a rebuttal, which was lost, but others have made the points which I was going to make.

    That said, the fundamental schism between you and I lies right here:

    You’re arguing that the burden of computing should lie with the user; I’m arguing that it should lie with the platform.

    I’ve used all kinds of smartphones. I’ve had a Nokia 9300, an E62, and an N900, among others. I’ve had a Palm Treo and a Palm Pre. I’ve had a bunch of Blackberries. I’ve had an iPhone, and I’ve had a G1, a Nexus One, a MyTouch, a Droid Eris and a Droid.

    So I know from smartphones, Thomas. And I have to tell you: I’ve had the fewest headaches with the iPhone. It’s been the most stable, and the easiest to use.

    You mention that there’s any number of ways to sneak past App Store reviewers. That’s true, as it goes, but you’re never going to stop someone who’s bent on doing harm; all you can do, really, is make it as difficult as possible.

    The barriers to doing so are higher on iOS than they are on Android because Apple proactively stomps on that. Contrast that with Google’s active neglect of the App Market: there’s all kinds of copyright-infringing material there, to begin with, but really, your argument is rendered moot by the existence of multiple antivirus applications in the Market – and their absence in the App Store.

    Thomas, no user is going to use their phone in a clean state.

    When it comes to end users, I assume the lowest common denominator, and then double that, because that’s what the real world is like. The real world is redolent of users like my mom and dad, who think the whole internet is stuffed into 10 computers in a room in San Francisco.

    You can argue that that’s awful, and people should know better; and hey, I dig that. People should know better, but I’m tired of fighting that fight, and we’ve been fighting it since, oh, 1982?

    My next-door neighbor is going to download a live wallpaper with Jenna Jameson on it, he doesn’t care that he found it from some provider that practically screams out Malwarez-R-Us™, and when his phone goes kaBOOM, the last thing he’s going to do is exercise some self-analysis; he’s going to come find me. And the cycle will repeat itself again, because someone will always rescue him.

    iOS short-circuits that process, to a degree. So yes, I’m cool with letting go of freedom0 when it comes to iOS because I’d rather spend my time doing other things.

    I don’t expect you to agree. We have irreconcilable positions on this. Oh, and one other thing: saying “oh, here come the Gruber commenters” in what I’m fairly certain was a sneering tone doesn’t do your thoughtful argument any justice; indeed, it detracts from it.

  29. “There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”

    — From the Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

  30. I like that quote and agree with it. I think a mobile industry where Freedom 0 is not available is completely undesirable. But I think that “freedom to” presents a compelling model for a lot of people and I think it’s very interesting to see the two models go at it.

  31. Rafe,

    I’m not arguing that the burden lies with the user, and I think it’s unfortunate that you’ve cast my argument that way. There’s a tendency in these debates to immediately paint the other side as a free software extremist or The Angry Nerd From Your IT Department Who Hates Your Grandma, and I’m not. At least, I don’t think I am.

    I’m arguing that you can have a secure system without eliminating the ability to run user code (which, yes, could do dangerous things). On Android, you need to check a box with a clear, reinforced warning before you can install unsigned code, and there’s a sandbox in place around applications that is equal (or more restrictive) than the sandbox on iOS. Your neighbor can no more make his phone “go kaBOOM” with a wallpaper on Android than he can on iOS. And if he uninstalls that wallpaper, it’ll be gone just as completely.

    Yes, Google allows security software into their market–or, more accurately, they don’t ban it. But the presence of that software doesn’t mean the platform is insecure, any more than its absence on iOS means that the iPhone is secure. And I guess that’s what I think is untrustworthy about your notion of some kind of new, extra freedom. As far as I can tell, what you really mean is “carefully managed perceptions of safety.” Maybe I’m a bad person for not being persuaded by that. But I think it’s kind of dishonest to refer to it as “freedom.”

    On a side note, people love to focus on the security software, and I’m not keen to defend it. But these applications often offer more than just a “virus check.” Lookout, for example, also does backups, device location and management, and helps users understand what Android’s sometimes cryptic app permissions actually mean. I wish they wouldn’t sell it as malware protection, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see the potential value there.

  32. Just to throw it out there: no one posting to this site is non-tech savvy. Ergo, we’re reading the opinions of folks who care about technical crap. Yet the masses want either cheapness or trendiness or simplicity.

    For example, I’ve never heard of these “must-have apps” Locale and Swype. I assure you that my mainstream iPhone-owning colleagues couldn’t give two poops about them. They aren’t power users. They have a wife and a car and a kid and house repairs etc. Keep it simple.

  33. Why can’t Apple provide a platform where third-party applications are properly sandboxed? On a desktop computer you can download and run applications written to a number of platforms (HTML5, Flash, Java, Silverlight, Air) that all provide a sandboxed environment for running programs safely.

    So, this HTML5 you mention, you think that iOS doesn’t support it?

  34. Not having to worry about malware, invasive upgrading and “reinstalling” of course have value, but I would not count it as a freedom, a convenience perhaps.

    You asked for example of Freedom 0 and Freedom 3 combined. I would say Ubuntu gives me and many others just that. I often install software from the Ubuntu repositories, and never worry it will mess up my system. Upgrades are seamless. Granted I dont install random stuff from the web. But doing that compares to doing that on your Mac or jailbreak your iPhone, and it will surely increase the maintenace pain.

  35. Democracy is a pain, and most people are not qualified to make a proper judgement. Therefore, dictatorship is better. You give up some freedoms and in return you don’t have to choose who will lead the country, and what are the best ways to run it. These are hard choices for most people.

  36. Feel free to delete this, but on your last paragraph you say the ‘mast majority’, I think it should be ‘vast majority’ – just wanting to help.

    Great article. Keep em coming.

  37. I’m not an expert on software architecture, but my friends with iPhones rave about it more than my friends with Android.

    It may be a small sample size, but that’s how I make my decisions. I don’t think it’s too far off from the majority of users. Since getting the iPhone, I’ve switched over to a MacBook and iPad as well. I don’t think I’m alone there either.

    One thing I like about Apple is that I trust them more. I’m tired of reading that a laptop has 4 hours of battery life when it only has 2 for me. I’m still amazed that my iPad lasts all day. I don’t technically know why, just that it does.

  38. Alexander Richards

    November 24, 2010 at 5:15 am

    @Thomas

    “On Android, you need to check a box with a clear, reinforced warning before you can install unsigned code”

    People have never ever been stopped by warning signs. Maybe Android users can use their phone in the same “secure” way as an iPhone, but only as long as they obey certain rules. Rules that are not obvious to the normal user. As long as you give users the opportunity to break something, they WILL finally break something.

  39. I think it’s very interesting that this 3rd freedom doesn’t always apply to iOS. If you have a 3G you’ll know, you installed the update and its performance is now horrible. Completely and utterly awful. So is this 3rd freedom always true, right across the platform? Not for OS updates anyway.

  40. @Thomas,

    You accuse Rafe of distorting your argument before he argues against it, but you seem to be doing the same. You say:

    “And I guess that’s what I think is untrustworthy about your notion of some kind of new, extra freedom. As far as I can tell, what you really mean is “carefully managed perceptions of safety.” Maybe I’m a bad person for not being persuaded by that. But I think it’s kind of dishonest to refer to it as “freedom.” “

    Do you really honestly think that he means no real new safety, just “carefully managed perceptions of safety”. You don’t think that he actually thinks that Apple’s restrictions add in any safety of any kind? Not even a tiny bit? You think he is just being dishonest?

    I think it’s pretty clear that the fundamental difference between your perspectives is that he thinks that the iOS platform adds some degree of safety and security beyond what Android provides and that that difference is significant enough to create a certain amount of freedom from worry on the part of the end user. At least he was honest enough to acknowledge that it is a complex issue with room for multiple perspectives.

    While both platforms use many of the same techniques to make them much more stable and maintenance free than a PC environment there are still some key differences. The question is, do these differences create a need for less maintenance on iOS than on Android. These are the differences as I see them:

    1. One app store on iOS. If the norm becomes to have several app stores installed then this could eventually be an issue. If most users, to get the software they need get used to installing stores wantonly just to get some stupid app then it will be significantly easier to trick people into installing malware. I don’t think that this will happen but it could. I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility.

    2. A more tightly controlled app store on iOS. Is the Apple review process more likely to catch malware earlier Google’s process? I don’t know. But it’s possible.

    3. The ability to install non app store software on Android. If users got used to needing to allow this to get the software they wanted then this could also become a problem. Windows users don’t absolutely have to run as Administrator to use the computer but lot’s of software wouldn’t run well if you weren’t. I don’t think that this will become a problem on Android but the platform is still very very young.

    4. The ability to run different kinds of software on Android, even from Google’s Android Market. This is where I think the differences really exist. The mere ability for an app to install a daemon that run in the the background all the time creates a huge difference between the two platforms. If something is wrong on iOS you can be almost completely certain that it is the the currently running app. Yes, there is a task killing mechanism on iOS. But when you go to it, you already know what app needs to be killed. If an app is misbehaving while you use it. You exit, kill it, and relaunch. You never have to go through the process of discovering that something is wrong and then hunting around to figure out which app it is. How often does this happen on Android? I have no idea. Maybe it never happens, but I would be surprised if it didn’t.

    You can say that in pragmatic terms none of these things do or will ever actually happen and that the real world differences in term of users ability to muck up their system are negligible. But you seem to be saying that that Rafe doesn’t even believe that any such differences do or could exist and that the only real difference is perception. That seems pretty obtuse, or rather, since we are all apparently here not only to question each others reasoning, but also to impugn each others integrity, dishonest. Seriously, your complete refusal to even acknowledge that there is any sort of trade off going on or that there is any gray area here at all really does make you sound like “The Angry Nerd From Your IT Department Who Hates Your Grandma.”

    I am an iOS user but I am also thrilled by the presence of Android. I am happy they they are both using two different models for platform security. I think it will be interesting to see what real world differences arise over time with regards to these issues. These platforms are very young. One of you will be proven right by time.

  41. Your third “freedom” sounds like stockholm syndrome to me. A grotesque, mangling of the word freedom.

  42. I think that says more about you than it does about the third freedom. This is really a debate about positive liberty and negative liberty. Both are important.

  43. And don’t forget the Fourth Freedom: Freedom from porn!

    http://m.gawker.com/5539717/steve-jobs-offers-world-freedom-from-porn

    You can thank me later.

  44. “One more twist being that Apple released a CDMA iPhone…”

    Unless you’re a visitor from the future, that statement isn’t correct.

  45. This was honestly like reading party propaganda. This would be all fine if Apple’s only rule for the app store was “won’t harm the system” but it isn’t. It’s full of rules for content as well. You can call it whatever you like, but that’s not “freedom”. It’s censorship.

  46. I think referencing Gruber’s more-apologist-than-usual article may have weakened this post. But you point is quite valid and I like the framing of “freedom” to describe the luxury iOS (“app console”) users enjoy. Freedom “from” worry is just as valid as freedom “of” unrestrained use.

    Though it must be admitted this is a slippery slope and can lead to abuse of liberty in the name of nebulously-defined freedom. Perhaps this luxury that modern car buyers and iOS users enjoy is better described as just that: a luxury or privilege.

  47. “But the presence of [security] software doesn’t mean the platform is insecure, any more than its absence on iOS means that the iPhone is secure.”

    For anyone making an argument such as this, I have two words: supply and demand.

  48. As I read this I am hit with a common theme. In the distant past of computing (think 2-3 years ago), users had to deal with file systems, task managers, launchers and drivers. As computers increased in complexity, the sophistication level of the software systems under the hood remained stagnate. Note, there is a difference between complexity and sophistication. Sophistication comes in abstracting the complexity of the system AWAY from the user but not decreasing the power of the system noticeably.

    Both iPhone and Android started down the path of increased sophistication but Android has gotten back on the path of increased complexity. Task managers? Really? Anti-Virus on a phone? Really? Mounting and un-mounting “Volumes” to deal with media? Really? Dealing with file-systems? Really?

    All of these are paths to complexity at the expense of sophistication. I understand that some people want to deal with the underlying technology but they really are the minority. Most people are very happy to simply not think about how something works; they just want to use the device.

    The common theme is Android users think of using a phone in the same tired old way we have always used computers. They see “freedom” as being in control of every aspect of their device. iPhone users are comfortable to allow the device to manage itself and see freedom in not even thinking that there is something to control as it simply does what it is instructed.

  49. Turns out this is a fifth kind of freedom:

    http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html

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