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Are We Part of the War Against General Purpose Computing?

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Are We Part of the War Against General Purpose Computing?

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I tweeted this on November 26th:

funny that there exists a fear that Apple is trying to “kill general computing” even though > 95% of creative professionals I know use OSX

I originally tweeted this because I was growing somewhat annoyed with the loathing of a single company, Apple, as being anti general purpose computing when I don’t believe they truly are. Even if they were, that company wouldn’t be alone in this this behavior either.

Though it’s purely anecdotal evidence, essentially every conference and user meet up I go to, where the user presence is those of the developer ilk, I’d guess based on a rough eye measurement that 85% of the laptops in use are Macintoshes. Presumably most of those laptops do not have Linux or Windows installed as the host operating system. In my last two places of employment, all but two people had a Mac, and one of those two just recently converted.

If you read through the original essay Cory Doctorow wrote about the subject of in the title of the blog post, the “War Against General Purpose Computing”, you can read between the lines and infer that he is also implicating the mega vendors in the spaces of hardware, software and services (e.g. Apple, Google, Microsoft… etc. etc).

That is one of my favorite pieces of writing to come out of 2012. The trend he speaks of there, true enough. I don’t think Doctorow is completely paranoid either.

But think about the points he makes and zero in on the big computing vendors with a microscopic focus. The aforementioned powers that be are shifting to controlling copyright and controlling a specific computing experience centered around consumption. For example, consider the evolution iOS devices or the introduction of Windows Surface tablet. Those devices are meant entirely for a controlled experience with very little to no power from an end user’s perspective (putting jailbreaking aside for the moment) to alter the experience and to tinker and do things that us creatives would often do with our general purpose computing machines.

But… is this really a problem? Is this part of the war?

To answer that question, let’s take a look at the target audiences. From my viewpoint, I believe you can conveniently divide the users of all non general purpose computing devices (AKA iToys) into two stereotypes:

  • My Mom and people like her
  • Me when I’m not working or creating

First, consider the target demographic that would be my mother, or for that matter your mother, or aunt, or any middle aged working class but near retirement person. My mother and people like her were never going to take advantage of general computing anyway. Even Doctorow admits this. They want a controlled experience because a computing device only exists to reach some other ancillary goal - to entertain, to communicate, or get a very simplistic task done. What good does a computing environment without restrictions do for her? Not much.

Now, the second stereotype isn’t so clear cut. I’m a software developer by trade. I obviously rely on a healthy state of general computing where I have a fair amount of freedom to do and create and depend on an open internet, open protocols, open formats, open languages… and basically open everything. But when I’m not “doing” and “creating” what am I doing that requires general purpose computing?

Said differently, what am I doing when I put on my consumer hat each evening that wouldn’t be solved with simply the canned experiences provided to me by the newest, shiniest, and closed computing devices… and yes, even limited protocols and a limited internet?

The answer: very little.

That’s blasphemous coming from someone who works in my profession during my day job. But I think it’s true.

However, in order for technology and content to actually be created, there must be an environment conducive to support creators. That environment can’t exist without general purpose computing. There will always be a market for tools to sell to people who want to create and general purpose computing will not die or lose a war based on that. I don’t think even the MPAA/RIAA/etc can lobby enough legislation into the books without posing such a threat to the tool and service makers that fuel general purpose computing that they wouldn’t end up in a stalemate.

The proliferation and closing of certain computing devices is really just for-profit companies finding a way to enter new markets. You know, capitalism-like stuff that works, if you can believe that or not.

So if you are a creative professional and have engaged in fear and loathing of how $X company is being restrictive and evil in how they are approaching this brave new world, then stop. That particular world isn’t for you… at least not during your day job.



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