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The Personal Computer is Dead

Last week, I read an article entitled, “The personal computer is dead” by Jonathan Zitttrain.

The basic premise of the article is that there’s an unprecedented shift of power from end users and software developers to operating system vendors on the other. If you’re a software developer, this shouldn’t be a surprise since if you have been developing mobile applications, you should have noticed the walled gardens popping up around you. To distribute applications, you have to go through a vendor like Apple and use their App Store… each individual application has to be vetted and meet a set of standards that isn’t fully transparent. Your application gets a distribution channel and Apple gets to take a cut of your profits. This model was extremely successful for Apple and has now “boomeranged back to the PC.”

There’s now an App Store for the Mac to match that of the iPhone and it carries the same restrictions essentially. I’m almost 100% sure that Microsoft will replicate this model in their next operating system. As the article states, “today’s developers are writing code with the notion not just of consumer acceptance, but also vendor acceptance.”

I theorize that these typed of wall gardens will slowly start taking advantage of what is going on in the development tooling space. With the advent and eventual maturity of online development tools (see Ace or Eclipse Orion), I envision companies forcing you to write software with tools hosted on their server and then finding a way to “tax” you for the usage. Imagine Google Chrome becoming the worlds most popular browser. Google starts integrating “apps” more prominently in their browser and the way the apps are written are fully online using their web-based tool-chain. To get an app in the browser, you have to go through some control point Google sets up.

Imagine writing software for say the blackfin processor, fully hosted on their infrastructure since that’s the way Analog Devices likes it. The company gets a new control point and potentially another revenue stream. In the end, the tools may even be more convenient for developers but what path are we heading down…?

I’m not sure if the trend is good or bad yet, but there’s definitely a shift of power from end users and software developers to vendors. I feel there’s a definitive trend in the software industry to build walled gardens. Will we start losing the power to tinker and use our own tools to do development? Will I start having nightmares that involve RMS screaming at me (while wearing some crazy costume) about free software and saying he was correct all along?

To end my diatribe, here’s a final quote from the article to mull over, “… if we allow ourselves to be lulled into satisfaction with walled gardens, we’ll miss out on innovations to which the gardeners object, and we’ll set ourselves up for censorship of code and content that was previously impossible. We need some angry nerds.”

Maybe I should have had more coffee this morning, thoughts?

  • Irbull

    This was likely the future that RSM and the FSF saw unfolding, 25 years ago.  I think there is a lot to be said about the value of ‘Free’ Software (and I really mean Free software not just Open Source software).  

    On the other hand there is the practical side of things.  With these apps that have been vetted and approved, things just seem to work.  And for most consumers, that’s what they really care about. 

  • Markus Alexander Kuppe

    @8e36407e3185b93c7fd35bfdba2572f8:disqus FOSS just works for me – and a bunch of friends (non-geeks!) – just fine. Today’s bad reputation of FOSS software IMO needs to be updated.

  • Irbull

    I’m not saying FOSS doesn’t work, I’ve used Debian as my primary desktop since Fall 2000 (and as a secondary machine since 1996).  But I always ‘seem’ to be the last one on the conference wifi, or my multi-monitor doesn’t ‘quite’ work with the projector; and I never did manage to get the printer or scanner to work.  My on-line banking website told me ‘this browser is not supported’ (even though it was FF, WTF).  I always have to ask people send things in OO format (or PDF) — although google has made this easier on me.  
    Yes I’ve stood up for my technology choice. I renewed my mortgage with a different bank because of their bogus warning (and I told them this).  I pointed out the terrible App Store Policies to almost all my Friends / Family members.  But at the end-of-the-day, while I’m trying to figure out why the birthday video of my daughter won’t play on my machine (turns out I was missing some MPlayer Codec), the rest of my family is enjoying themselves watching the movie on my sisters computer.But yes, things are much better. I’ve not compiled a kernel since 2006 and besides ‘Slide presentation software’ there is nothing I miss on my GNU/Linux machine.   

  • Boris Bokowski

    I am not worried about our ability to tinker, as long as the web remains as strong a platform as it is today. It is easier than ever before to make functionality available on the web, including tools, and I have yet to see a walled garden that does not include a web browser. Web pages now can access things like sensors, the camera, etc. – pretty much the only thing that a web page cannot access currently is data stored on the device, such as files on a desktop computer, or contacts/photos/… on a mobile device. Doesn’t seem like a problematic restriction to me since most of these live “in the cloud” anyway.

    Now your point about using web-based tools as control points is a good one. I am optimistic and think of this as a good thing, but perhaps that’s just because I work in the tools business, and see this as a chance for tool makers to earn money, which historically has been very hard.

  • It’s slightly concerning because at least the old method of mitigating control via licenses like GPL, works pretty well. However, in the future age of services running mostly on the server-side, there’s a very small percentage of software out there that is released under the AGPL which would keep the spirit of the GPL alive for server-based applications.

    I guess we will see what the future will hold 🙂