Today's Sunday New York Times included a column of mine in the business section which tried to think about the App Store's tremendous rate of innovation over the past two years, and the clear benefit it has had for small developers. My general point was that, while many of us have worked under the assumption that open platforms tend to be more "generative," in some important ways, the closed architecture of the App Store and the iPhone OS has actually contributed to the generativity of the platform.
On Twitter this afternoon, I got into a bit of a debate with Dan Gillmor, whom I have admired for many years now, about my use of the term "generative." Twitter is a fantastic medium for sharing links to complicated ideas, and an atrocious medium for actually discussing complicated ideas, so after a few volleys with Dan I told him I wanted to retreat to the blog. So here we are.
Dan's original tweet read as follows:
it's a flat contradiction to call a system generative, as @stevenbjohnson does, if it has a corporate choke point
Now, both Dan and I are using Jonathan Zittrain, and his excellent book, The Future Of The Internet and How To Stop It, as a reference point for this concept of "generative." Zittrain's book is indeed about the power of open platforms that lack "corporate choke points," and generativity is inarguably crucial to his argument. But I don't think the two are synonymous. Or at least I don't think they should be synonymous.
In the opening chapter, Zittrain introduces the concept of generative platforms with a discussion of the Apple II: "[it] was a quintessentially generative technology. It was a platform. It invited people to tinker with it. Hobbyists wrote programs. Businesses began to plan on selling software. Jobs (and Apple) had no clue how the machine would be used. They had their hunches, but, fortunately for them, nothing constrained the PC to the hunches of the founders."
With the exception of that last clause (more on that later) all of these statements are true of the iPhone OS. (It is not true of the iPhone or iPad hardware, to be sure, as Cory Doctorow has emphatically pointed out.) As I argued in the column, the iPhone platform has seen more tinkering and new uses, generated by businesses and hobbyists alike, than any other two-year-old computing platform in history. (Including the Web, I would argue.)
In my mind, a "generative" platform translates to something like this: a platform that is constantly being re-invented in surprising new ways by a diverse group of creators, where individuals, hobbyists, small startups, and amateurs compete on a level playing field with large incumbents.
In other words, generativity is the result we are aiming for. An open platform is the tool we use to achieve that result. That's the central argument of Zittrain's book: if we want generativity in our media and software, then open platforms are the best way to achieve that goal. But if open platforms are part of the definition of generativity, then it suddenly starts to sound a little circular: the best way to achieve a generative open platform is to build a generative open platform.
What I was trying to argue in the Times piece is that the goal we're all championing—rapid, emergent innovation with small guys competing with big software companies—is happening on the iPhone platform, and it's happening in part because of the way that platform is closed, not open.
Now, that last clause: "nothing constrained the PC to the hunches of the founders." It is true that there is a very real constraint built into the App Store approval process, and in the column I specifically singled that out as the biggest problem with Apple's current system. But in practice, I would wager 99.9% of all new ideas get approved for the App Store, and so it is really more of a threat of a chokehold thus far. (Though I would still like to see a side door, as I wrote.) But of course these things all exist on a sliding scale. There are entirely open platforms that are entirely non-generative because no one develops for them. Apple's argument is that some restraints, implemented in the right places and judiciously used, can lead to more innovation in the long run. And right now, given the track record of the past 22 months, I think that's an argument that we have to take seriously.