Generativity, Openness and Apple

I’m drowning in administrative work, travel, conferences, and the approaching end of the Spring semester, so my posting has been off.  But I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to note Steven Johnson’s essay in the New York Times this morning, writing about the iPhone and the Apple App Store:

For about a decade now, ever since it became clear that the jungle of the World Wide Web would triumph over the walled gardens of CompuServe, AOL and MSN, a general consensus has solidified among the otherwise fractious population of People Who Think Big Thoughts About the Internet.

That unifying creed is this: Open platforms promote innovation and diversity more effectively than proprietary ones.

In the words of one of the Web’s brightest theorists, Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard, the Web displays the “generative” power of a platform where you don’t have to ask permission to create and share new ideas. If you want democratic media, where small, innovative start-ups can compete with giant multinationals, open platforms are the way to go.

I’ve long considered myself a believer in this gospel and have probably written a hundred pages of book chapters, essays and blog posts spreading the word. Believing in open platforms is not simple techno-utopianism. Open platforms come with undeniable costs. The Web is rife with pornography and vitriol for the very same reasons it’s so consistently ingenious. It’s not that the Web is perfect, by any means, but as an engine of innovation and democratization, its supremacy has been undeniable.

Over the last two years, however, that story has grown far more complicated, thanks to the runaway success of the iPhone (and now iPad) developers platform — known as the App Store to consumers.

Apple could certainly quiet a lot of its critics by creating some kind of side door that enables developers to bypass the App Store if they wish. An overwhelming majority of developers and consumers would continue to use the store, retaining all the benefits of that closed system, but a secondary market could develop where more experimental ideas could flourish. But whatever Apple chooses to do with its platform in the coming years, it has made one thing clear: sometimes, if you get the conditions right, a walled garden can turn into a rain forest.

Johnson is writing about the excluded middle:  In debates about open and closed platforms and the presence and absence of “generativity,” slogans and catchphrases sometimes obscure the detailed workings of specific environments.  These may be neither purely open nor unambiguously closed and not “generative” in some absolute sense but viable in many others, and still worth considering and studying in order to understand how and why they work.

I expect that much of the response to Johnson’s piece will take up the last part of his concluding sentence:  “a walled garden can turn into a rain forest.”  Is he right?  Wrong?  How can Apple be “generative”?  What happened to “open”?  And the like.

I read a different part of Johnson’s conclusion as carrying the important message:  “if you get the conditions right.”  The problem is that we don’t have a solid idea of what those conditions are – and worse, it’s likely the case that “the conditions” are not the same every time.  If you want to build the next successful environment for information production, distribution, and/or sharing, do you follow the Apple App Store model?  Parts of it?  Which ones?  Or do you choose the Apple II (“generative”) model?  Parts of it?  Which ones?

Yes, this is a plug for Constructing Commons in the Cultural Environment, by Frischmann, Strandburg, and Madison, forthcoming any day now from the Cornell Law Review, which not coincidentally offers a method for studying “the conditions” across different information contexts.

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