Not good: moving to a captive, closed world for content and Wi-Fi

Doc Searls has written a post called Edging Toward the Fully Licensed World in which he says: “… [Y]our ownership of a smartphone is far more diminished than your ownership of a laptop or a camera. That’s because our phones are members of proprietary systems that we don’t operate.”

As an example he cites Amazon ebooks that we purchase and download to our Kindles, iPads and iPhones — ebooks which we don’t own — unlike the physical books we buy. These ebooks are only licensed to us (loaned if you will) and Amazon (as well as Apple and other e-content purveyors) are free to change the terms anytime they want to without our consent. Doc argues that telco and cable operators are pushing us into the very same world where every moment is billable, where “all digital pipes turn into metered spigots for “content” and services on the telephony model, where you pay for easily billable data forms such as minutes and texts.”

And he says Wi-Fi is in danger of becoming carrier-controlled and carrier-billed. Remember the good old days when you could find free Wi-Fi just about everywhere? Now free Wi-Fi is the exception, not the rule. You can still find free Wi-Fi in cafes, hotels, and libraries, but the free Wi-Fi that used to exist as you wandered down the street is gone. That’s because most people’s Wi-Fi access points used to come with a default OPEN access. That’s over.

Indeed, Cisco and other wireless vendors are now releasing what they call “carrier class” end-to-end Wi-Fi/cellular access points which are designed to allow the operator to take full control of your iPhone’s connections. “Managing” your mobile experience is how the PR departments like to describe it. “Control” is a better word. Soon, Wi-Fi networks will become like cellular networks: walled garden fortresses, bounded on all sides by passwords and paid memberships.

There are positive aspects to this end-to-end solution, namely, your iPhone can roam seamlessly on Wi-Fi and cellular networks owned by your operator and its buddies (also known as roaming partners). No need to fuss around with looking for Wi-Fi networks, switching, etc.  It’s just so convenient! Isn’t that what we all say?

Just as it’s convenient for me to buy ebooks from Amazon. I have dozens of ebooks downloaded onto my iPad and it’s wonderful to be able to carry this library around the world. But there is a steep price to pay and it’s that I cannot (most of the time) lend my ebooks to someone and even those I can lend, come with a 2-week deadline. My friend has to finish the book, even if it is a 1000 page tome, in two weeks. At the library at least you can extend the deadline of the book you have borrowed. Not so with the Amazon Kindle store. Furthermore, Amazon ebooks at not THAT much cheaper than the paper version.

Now comes news about the Apple iBookstore’s strange terms and conditions. Seth Godin reveals that Apple has refused to carry his ebook, Stop Selling Dreams, in the iBookstore because there are links in the bibliography to the books he has cited and these links take you to the Amazon bookstore where you can buy them!

You can always read Seth’s book on the iBooks app in your iPad or iPhone, but you cannot buy it from the iBookstore. I find this policy quite outrageous, in fact, just as outrageous as the Kindle app on my iPad which prevents me from buying an ebook from the Amazon bookstore directly from my iPad. What Apple wants to do, of course, is to control each and every purchase on your Apple device and to get a cut out of it. In the old days (back when the US and most countries had a Justice Department staffed with competent, watchful antitrust enforcers), this sort of anti-competitive behaviour would have triggered an investigation. These days people think that it’s an inalienable right.

You begin to wonder:

(1) Who owns this device anyway?

(2) Who controls what I do on this device?

(3) Is this why Apple’s market cap is over half a trillion dollars?

(4) Why aren’t the antitrust authorities looking into this?

Doc warns us:

By losing the free and open Internet, and free and open devices to interact with it — and even such ordinary things as physical books and music media — we reduce the full scope of both markets and civilization. But that’s hard to see when the walled gardens are so rich with short-term benefits.

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Postscript: Last week, I bought a book – a real paper-based book – called Collected Short Stories, Volume 4, by W. Somerset Maugham, an outstanding collection of stories set in Southeast Asia. It was so refreshing to read this book. I took it poolside and left it on the chaise longue to take a long swim, confident that no one would steal it. I felt safe in knowing that nobody – Facebook, Google, or some other electronic spy in the name of social networking – was looking over my shoulder, peeking at what I was reading. Best of all I knew it was mine, mine, mine and I could toss it into the pool or lend it to a friend for however long I wanted, and no one had anything to say about it.

collected short stories of somerset maugham

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  1. Esme, a related issue is that Wi-Fi and Internet access are being conflated.Open Wi-Fi should remain open as a direct-to-user content source, not requiring users to consent to long legal agreements or register for accounts, or Wi-Fi operators to connect to ISPs just to get local content.