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.


  1. Everyone reading this blog is a technophile. All of us are capable of messing around with our computers and phones, and hooking up our own surround sound. The differences in the level of freedom 3 between iOS and Android are negligible for us. Most people are not us.

    The vast majority of people buying smart phones call someone to install a new printer or upgrade the OS on their computer. They do not want to fiddle with settings. For them, I think the differences between Android and iOS with regard to freedom 3 will be much bigger. Maybe not insurmountable, but definitely not negligible.

  2. You get similar arguments with automotive stuff. Most people just want a car that starts and takes them where they want to go. People who want quick pickup, racing performance, special differential effects and the like have to rebuild and reprogram their engines and gearbox. It’s legal, as long as you stay “street legal”, if you are going to drive on a public street, but your car maker isn’t likely to honor any warranty.

    In aviation they have a special experimental certification category, just for folks who want to try something new and different. They still have to follow the flying rules so they don’t smack into someone else, but no one makes them put safety cards in the passenger seat if they have one. This type of plane can be a lot of fun, but it isn’t a serious transportation alternative for the rest of us.

  3. Jason: Apple hasn’t “released” a CDMA iPhone yet.

    There are reasonably credible reports that they have one in late testing, but Apple also has a long history of prototypes that never get released.

    (And Gruber would not be the guy to ask about an Android killer app… except that he went directly to a guy who does have the chops, and looked at his lists.

    My coworker has a Droid and is quite happy with it… but I ain’t seen a killer app yet, and all the best stuff appears to be “copies of iOS apps”.

    Kind of a pity, since more good software is, well, more good software, and a general bar-raising in software quality can’t be a bad thing.)

    (And on the philosophical level, I’m a longtime computer geek. I’ve been using MacOS since 6.0.7, Windows since before 3.1 [and DOS before that], and unix variants at various levels of intensity for almost 20 years.

    And you know what? I don’t give a flying copulation about whether or not I have root access on my phone. I do care about the user experience, however, and I despise carrier-picked bundles.

    With my iPhone I don’t have to do anything to get top-notch UX, and I don’t have to root my phone to remove the crap a carrier put on it (which, sadly, many Android users do have to).

    When the current contract ends, I will almost certainly get whatever the current iPhone is, and not even seriously consider Android, unless there’s a UX revolution of an almost protean character.)

  4. “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?”

    It’s true, one can’t buy a CDMA iPhone yet. It’s quite possible that everyone talking about a CDMA iPhone coming to Verizon in January is wrong. Such things have happened before and I’d be more than happy to be wrong this time (but I don’t think I will be).

    As for 2, since we’re talking about “killer apps” and “freedom” we’re talking about perception rather than raw technical merit, and I believe that Apple choosing to release a phone now instead of waiting until everyone but Sprint uses the same radio system speaks to the perception that Android is a perfectly reasonable smartphone on a much better network (so yes, my thoughts on 2 are dependent on me being right about 1).

    I don’t think the majority of Android users now care about freedom, in particular. They want what the majority of iPhone users want: something that just works (phone/contacts/camera/calendar/e-mail/text-messaging) with a minimum of fuss and some fun application add-ons.

    I’d love to know the percentage of smartphone users that consider on-phone video editing a “must have” (my guess is 4), but I’ll agree that Netflix and similar services will soon be seen as a requirement. Netflix seems to think so, too, despite their security concerns.

  5. When I BUY something, I expected to be able to use it however I see fit. The seller shouldn’t be able to tell me how to use it UNLESS I haven’t really bought it (if I’m renting it, for example).

    The end.

  6. To the above guy, do you have to hack your calculator to use it to its fullest potential? It’s a calculator. It performs a given set of tasks. You could jury-rig it to do other things, but that’s your choice, and has nothing to do with the merit of the device itself.

    I’m a pretty technical guy and consider myself one of these nerds referred to above.

    I haven’t yet jailbroken my iPod touch. I simply can’t see what advantage there would be to it. An iPhone, yes, I hear that you can buy third-party tethering apps if you jailbreak. But that’s certainly one of the few reasons I can think of.

    They’re just really nice devices to use. I can’t see in any way how I am harmed by not having a more “open” system. It doesn’t limit me – it allows me to perform certain tasks better than if I didn’t have it in the first place.

    If I ever want to try programming it myself, I’ll jailbreak it. But the entire ecosystem – simple apps certified to run on a ubiquitous platform – makes using it a pleasure, and it’s actually pretty fun to be able to, for once, talk with my friends about a tool they can understand. Apple has lowered the denominator for computing and “apps” in general for an entire population, and the app culture inherited by Android means that many people are reaping the benefits of that.

    My buddy’s Droid Incredible, by the way, just had the latest update – with a Verizon App Market that was force-installed. It’s funny, it doesn’t actually work — it keeps claiming he’s “not a Verizon customer.”

    I am so glad that Apple’s system is “locked down” enough that poorly-deployed ideas like that don’t even see the light of day. I hope that doesn’t change, because open-source has never inherently resulted in a better experience for real-life users.

    To the Ubuntu user above, I’m glad his updates work just fine. Perhaps he was lucky enough to miss the glory days when AIGLX and XGL were in their teenage years, and X might decide to work or not with your video card depending on the season. Then there was that horrible Fedora 12 debacle with the pushed updates to DBus that broke the entire system…including the updates, so you had to be pretty smart on the message boards to realize a disaster had occurred.

  7. As far as “freedom from porn” is concerned, I must have missed the iOS update that kept me from surfing to YouPorn or RedTube or insert-name-of-porno-site on MobileSafari.

    Or the iOS update that kept me from uploading a porno to my iPhone/iPod Touch.

    Are there no porno apps in the store? Yes.

    But that’s a far cry from saying that you can’t watch porno on your iOS device. No one is stopping you from watching porn on your iOS device, other than, well, you.

  8. A few quick points… The iPhone is not a bad smartphone, but it’s not a good one. The RF performance is poor – not a problem to urban users but it is to those not near a cell… They also have one of the worst dead on arrival rates for new phones. Normal Apple – over marketed, under engineered. iOS has some fine security holes we’ve tested – really easy to break remotely.

    Apps – they are breaking your iPhone. Apart from those apps that sent personal data hither and thither, there are lots of free / nearly free apps that folk pop onto their phones. Quite a lot of these create regular data traffic to your phone. This is causing the networks backhaul and cell sites to clog up and it’s a real problem. That’s without all the video traffic… Finding RF and data bandwidth for all this chatter is not trivial. Can be a real probelm for users too, when they travel abroad and then return home to find that some social site app has racked up megabytes of data doing not much but charged at international roaming rates…

  9. I don’t use a Task Manager on my Android phone, and I see no ill effects. Android is a good system, and has many killer apps that would be impossible on the iPhone (SMS Backup, Chrome to Phone, Swype, to name a few).

    Freedom 0 and a feeling of personal freedom that you won’t mess up your computer are not incompatible, and projects like Android and Ubuntu demonstrate this in a more powerful way every year.

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