Page last updated at 12:06 GMT, Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Open Societies need open systems

Openness, like democracy, must be constantly defended, says Bill Thompson.

Amazon boss Jeff Bezos
Amazon's Jeff Bezos unveiled the Kindle to much interest
In the last few days we have seen two skirmishes in a war that could define the future shape of the internet and may even have some impact on those societies that are predicated on fast and reliable access to the network and its many affordances.

On 29 January, Amazon, the dominant online retailer for books and many other products, expressed its unhappiness with objections that publisher Macmillan had made to a proposed change in e-book pricing by de-listing all Macmillan stock and removing it from its indexes.

After two days during which authors, readers and almost the entire blogosphere condemned it for its high-handed action Amazon ceded defeat in a blog post from the Kindle team, in which it tried to blame Macmillan for the fight and put the books back on sale.

It will count the cost in lost goodwill, but more importantly it has now revealed its hand to other publishers who will use this evidence of lack of strategic thinking and corporate weakness to pursue their own behind-the-scenes negotiations with renewed vigour.

At the same time, Apple and Adobe are engaged in the online equivalent of all-out war over the lack of support for Adobe Flash in the iPhone operating system, a dispute which escalated significantly when the iPad tablet computer was launched without Flash support.

Two fronts

Apple claims that Flash is responsible for more crash reports from Mac OS X, which does support it, than any other application. Adobe says Apple is foolishly failing to support a de facto standard for rich media content and depriving its customers of access to many vital websites.

Bill Thompson
I will not go gladly into a locked-down world
Bill Thompson
Apple believes that new web standards like HTML5 and H.264 video will gradually make Flash unnecessary, and in the meantime iPhone users live without it.

The e-commentariat has waded in to both issues with alacrity. The Amazon/Macmillan dispute has attracted the attention of writers like Charlie Stross, who wrote that "Amazon, in declaring war on Macmillan in this underhand way, have screwed me, and I tend to take that personally, because they didn't need to do that".

The Apple/Adobe spat appeals more to technically-oriented commentators like John Gruber who said: "I'm not arguing that Apple's apparent executive-level antipathy toward Flash is about anything other than Apple's own interests… But while Apple may be acting spitefully, they're not spiting themselves".

Like two fronts in a major conflict the disputes are linked, in this case by Apple's newly announced iPad which lacks Flash support and offers, in the iBook store, direct competition to Amazon's e-book division.

Public interest

Neither adversary in the current disputes clearly has right on its side.

Karl Marx
Are closed systems the opium of the people?

Adobe would close off the web to non-Flash content if they could, while Apple and Amazon both argue that they are acting in the interests of the wider internet-used, tablet-toting, ebook-reading public.

As for Macmillan, as Cory Doctorow notes on the BoingBoing blog, it wants to charge higher prices for e-books instead of fighting Amazon over an issue that matters far more for the future of publishing such as demanding "that Amazon, Apple, B&N, and all the other e-book readers allow for interoperability and remove contracts that undo centuries' worth of book-ownership norms".

At the heart of this and many other fights lies an attempt to limit the ways in which the network and the computers connected to it can be used, and to do so in ways that serve the interests of corporations.

These interests may sometimes be aligned with those of the wider public, but that alignment is conditional and contingent and cannot be relied upon, which is why it must always be challenged.

High priests

One hundred and fifty years ago Karl Marx argued that religion was "the opium of the people", keeping the masses at bay with a promise of a better world to come.

Today the promised antidote to critical thinking is provided by closed systems, locked-down technologies and wholly-owned supply chains, which make life easier by removing our freedoms.

Apple and Amazon, like the priests of Marx's day, no doubt sincerely believe that the world they would build if given free rein would be better than the chaos that always seems to come with democracy, openness and freedom of choice, but they are wrong and will always be wrong.

I buy from Amazon, and use Apple kit, because both companies do some things extremely well and in some areas they are clearly superior to the competition, but I will not go gladly into a locked-down world.

Just as we must work to retain our democratic forms of government in the face of adversity, so we must constantly be alert for those who would remove open systems in the name of efficiency and effectiveness.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet. He is currently working with the BBC on its archive project.

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