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Steve Jobs Plays Big Brother

Imagine you have just bought a new DVD player. You’ve popped the popcorn and you are ready to enjoy a mindless action flick, or maybe a cheesy romantic comedy. Then you discover that the machine will not play your movie because the manufacturer does not approve of such low-quality fare.

This is exactly the situation that many new iPad owners may find themselves in. Apple’s chief executive officer, Steve Jobs, has decided that it is his right to overrule what he sees as the bad taste of his products’ users. Those who disagree with the CEO’s decrees on what’s in and what’s out are generally out of luck.

Quite a role reversal for the man who, in one of television’s most famous commercials, introduced his Macintosh computer as a blow for individual freedom against the corporate constraints of Big Brother.

In an open letter posted on Apple’s website, Jobs defended Apple’s decision not to support Adobe Systems Inc.’s Flash video software on the iPhone, the iPod or the iPad despite the fact that Flash is used in 75 percent of online videos. Jobs’ arguments basically boil down to the conclusion that Flash is passe and users don’t need it. Instead of using Flash, developers creating applications for Apple’s mobile devices are encouraged to use HTML5, CSS and JavaScript. While tech-savvy customers may be able to work around Apple’s blockade, for most iPhone and iPad users, Jobs’ decision puts Flash content out of reach.

Jobs attacked Adobe’s Flash player on the grounds that it is has a poor performance record, drains the battery life of mobile devices, and is not well-suited for use on touch screens. Furthermore, he said, allowing Flash on Apple mobile devices would make developers dependent on Adobe for updates and enhancements. Since Adobe could delay updates to coincide with similar improvements for other platforms, the result could be “sub-standard apps.”

While iPhone and iPad users cannot access some online videos and games as a result of his decision, Jobs argues that this should not matter, since his customers have access to the clearly superior content available to them through Apple’s App store. He wrote, “Another Adobe claim is that Apple devices cannot play Flash games. This is true. Fortunately, there are over 50,000 games and entertainment titles on the App Store, and many of them are free.” While Jobs asserts that the decision to bar Flash is “based on technology issues,” rather than being “business driven,” the fact that Apple has the ability to collect a toll from any content passing through its App store surely can’t hurt.

Prior to the introduction of the iPhone, software on mobile phones was controlled by the mobile phone companies. The iPhone changed that by giving its users access to third-party software through the App Store. Although content still had to pass through the gateway Apple set up, the iPhone marked a leap forward in openness and competition for smart phone software.

But the introduction of the iPad changes the context. While the transition to the App Store system was a move toward increased openness for smart phones, it would be a step backward for traditional computing. The iPad, with its ambiguous status (is it an oversized iPod Touch or an underpowered laptop?) blurs the line between phone and computer, threatening to bring the level of manufacturer control that is accepted for smart phones to the realm of standard computers.

Outside of the iWorld, companies that sell computers, companies that sell operating systems and companies that sell software are fairly separate. You can buy your computer from Dell and have it shipped with an operating system from Microsoft. Microsoft gives developers the information they need to write programs that will work on its operating system, and then the developers sell those programs to you. Microsoft has its own software, of course, but it can’t veto your decision to use someone else’s programs instead. Just as your DVD player doesn’t automatically eject movies its makers consider inferior, your operating system does not reject programs based on what the manufacturer thinks of their quality.

During the years of Apple’s resurgence, as the iPod reintroduced consumers to the brand, Apple built up a reputation based on its focus on users’ needs. While Microsoft and its Windows operating systems were seen as less than consumer-friendly, Apple offered itself up as an alternative.

Now, however, it is Apple that wants to shackle its customers. Jobs may be right that using a touch-based device to access Flash content would be a frustrating and battery-draining experience that few consumers would enjoy. But, in a world of openness and free competition, customers should decide for themselves how to use the hardware they paid for.

If the iPad proves anything, it is that the distinction between mobile devices and full computers is becoming fuzzy to the point of irrelevance. Jobs may want to rethink the Big Brotherism, before someone takes a hammer to his new toy’s beautiful full-color touch screen.

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