Zittrain on Podcasts

Jonathan Zittrain has been promoting his new book on some excellent radio programs, including On the Media and On Point (with Tom Ashbrook). On OTM, the host challenged him with the query, “We don’t want blank-slate cell phones that have to be programmed. I want to buy it, take it out of the box, turn it on, make a call. . . .What’s pernicious about this, even theoretically?” His response is great:

Problem number one is no more surprises. You don’t get two guys in a garage cooking up something like the spreadsheet – Internet telephony like Skype, Kazaa and other peer-to-peer music sharing, email – the World Wide Web itself came from a physicist who was goofing around. So to lose that ability to be able to cook up something and send it around and see whether it works, that would be a terrible loss. That’s one thing.

The other thing is that devices like the iPhone, whether they are, as in their first version, what I call sterile — just Steve Jobs gets to change them — or even in their second version, what I call contingently generative – third parties now can write code for the iPhone but Steve Jobs still gets to approve it or yank it if he doesn’t like it – that makes these things very controllable by regulators who go through people like Steve Jobs to do it. And I can give you an example of that.

TiVo sued EchoStar not long ago for patent infringement. They said that EchoStar made a digital video recorder that was too much like a TiVo. They won, and EchoStar owes them 90 million dollars. But then they asked for something more. They got an order from the judge that said within 30 days, EchoStar had to fry by a remote upgrade all but a handful of the EchoStar DVRs already sold and placed in living rooms around the world.

Reminds me of Mike’s post on the iBrick. Zittrain offers many ideas in the book to ensure that “non-technical people as much as possible can still meaningfully use technologies that let them experiment without the experiment blowing up in their faces.”