July 20, 2009, 12:12 pm
By Henry Woodbury
In the New York Times, Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain voices his objections to cloud computing. Zittrain brings up obvious privacy and security concerns, but then makes the case for a more fundamental risk:
But the most difficult challenge — both to grasp and to solve — of the cloud is its effect on our freedom to innovate. The crucial legacy of the personal computer is that anyone can write code for it and give or sell that code to you — and the vendors of the PC and its operating system have no more to say about it than your phone company does about which answering machine you decide to buy. Microsoft might want you to run Word and Internet Explorer, but those had better be good products or you’ll switch with a few mouse clicks to OpenOffice or Firefox.
While Zittrain does well to call out Apple and its approach to iPhone apps in a later paragraph, he missteps here. Apple long outdid Microsoft in its corporate control over the peripherals and software that would run on its hardware. As for Microsoft, only an anti-trust case forced the giant software maker to share its application programming interfaces with third-party developers.
Given the holes in Zittrain’s alternate history, his fears about the freedom to innovate in the cloud have to convince on their own merits — and they do not. Facebook does not control the Internet, nor does the iPhone dominate the smart phone market (ever heard of the Blackberry?) While Facebook, Amazon, or Google could turn into “a handful of gated cloud communities whose proprietors control the availability of new code” the underlying infrastructure is out of their control in a way that was never true of the old PC world.
“As for Microsoft, only an anti-trust case forced the giant software maker to share its application programming interfaces with third-party developers.”
That simply isn’t true. Microsoft documented and shared it’s interfaces to an extent Apple never did. Microsoft’s developer program was the most complete and sophisticated in the computer world. In many ways it still is.
This has always been one of the most bizarre parts of the settlement since the Windows API had not only been published for over a decade and a half, but the method of discloser (MSDN) was well known by the time of the settlement (2002.)
If you go back to the original court case, it turns out that the APIs in question are a very narrow set of protocols used primarily in networking situations for an even narrower set of solutions. While it is possible a third party has since exploited those interfaces, they are not commonly used, nor required, by anyone other developer.
(One claim, where in my opinion the courts blundered, was made by WordPerfect in which they claimed the lack of certain APIs made it impossible to compete with Word. Except Word didn’t use these APIs and WordPerfect never has since. In other words, the APIs in question were a series of obsolete functions that appeared to be far more useful than they actually were. The further irony is that these APIs were documented by several third parties and Microsoft did not act to have that documentation removed from publication.)
Posted by Joe on July 24, 2009 at 9:57 pm
To clarify, Microsoft did agree to share its APIs as part of the settlement. My point is that with some minor edge exceptions, Microsoft simply agreed to do what it was already doing.
Posted by Joe on July 24, 2009 at 10:02 pm