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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

A Zittrain Dilemma: Appliances, the iPhone, and the Solidification of National Boundaries

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 12, 2008

I just finished reading Jonathan Zittrain’s book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It” (click here for Zittrain’s weblog of the same name)  … and now wish we could turn back the clock.

Zittrain’s thesis is that the internet has come to a turning point at which the collaborative and open and “generative” nature of the Net is being undermined by bad code, increasing complexities, and greater and lesser cyber-crime.   Fear of all three drives many of us to turn towards “applianced” devices in which a  trusted vendor controls hardware, software, and … content.  In the “generative” world we are threatened by malevolent outlaws, in the “applianced” world by monopolists and potential dictators.

Apple’s iPhone is a paradigmatic  “appliance.”  Apple ensures that the  iPhone’s physical form and the software that animates it unite into an powerful, capable, and aesthetically pleasing whole.  Apple also ensures and protects the safety of the device … albeit by controlling sources of content and deciding which applications can run on an iPhone and which cannot.

Apple also controls the iPhone’s connectivity.  In each national market in which the iPhone is sold it is permanently “SIM-locked” to the network and policies of a single “telco” thus depriving users of the possibility of switching SIM cards (i.e. the very “souls” of their phones) and, as a result, their carriers. To those who rarely travel or who live in large countries this is no tragedy.  Within each country, carriers’ price plans, coverage, and quality balance out more or less.  But in an international context, chaining users to a single provider prevents them from switching cards and carriers when crossing borders, thus holding them captive to roaming charges that are astronomical for voice calls and cataclysmic for data traffic.

The effect on monthly phone bills of overseas data roaming and push email is so extreme that even Apple’s US iPhone partner AT&T now posts on its website a warning advising customers to turn off the data and email capabilities of their iPhones when traveling abroad.  This spares customers the shock of outlandish bills but it also defeats the integration of capabilities and seamless connectivity that is the supposed hallmark and benefit of the iPhone.  The only alternative for loyal or compulsive iPhone users is the purchase of additional iPhones for each and every one of the countries they visit or work in.

Thus, the iPhone (and the manner in which it is brought to market and made connective) is so “applianced” that its forces users to conform to the arbitrary national boundaries we inherit from the 19th and early-20th centuries.  The irony: Within national markets the iPhone is a device that optimizes connectivity; seen internationally, however, the distibution and connectivity of the iPhone lead us on a retreat from the universality and border-transcending interconnectedness that many of assumed the merger of telecommunications and the internet would enable.

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2 Responses to “A Zittrain Dilemma: Appliances, the iPhone, and the Solidification of National Boundaries”

  1. […] Comments (RSS) « A Zittrain Dilemma: Appliances, the iPhone, and the Solidification of National Boundaries […]

  2. […] or so it seemed, until I read the fine print.  As it does with its iPhone, Apple “appliances” its services to geopolitical strictures inherited from the pre-Internet age and to a jingoistic […]

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