Home The Web Computer: Closed, Secure, and Tightly Controlled

The Web Computer: Closed, Secure, and Tightly Controlled

Lately, people have been noticing that the big shift in computing – that is, moving our apps off the desktop and into the cloud – has more ramifications beyond what simply appears to be a return to a mainframe/thin client architecture. On the surface, today’s web seems to be a developer’s dream – there are more platforms than ever and everything has an API. Yet the darker side to this shift leaves developers with less control over the apps they build. Instead, they’re at the whims of those that run the gated communities and closed platforms of today’s web. Are we abandoning openness for the sake of security? And is that a trade-off we want to make?

As our former colleague, Josh Catone, notes over on SitePoint, the return to closed platforms could ruin the web. When apps are shifted to the cloud, the platform owners can exert control, shutting down apps they deem to be malicious…or even those that simply don’t meet their terms of service. Says Josh, this “creates a tension between application developers and platform owners, and gives users the feeling that they don’t actually own the applications they’re using.”

iPhone Users: Apple Knows What’s Best For You

On the one hand, people acknowledge that a closed and tightly controlled platform has its benefits. Take the iPhone “kill switch,” for example. Steve Jobs recently confirmed its existence, saying that it is necessary to have in case of a malicious program, like one that went after user’s personal data, for example. “Hopefully we never have to pull that lever, but we would be irresponsible not to have a lever like that to pull,” he says.

Yet Apple sees no problem pulling the lever that makes apps disappear from the App Store. As of today, they have already sucked several into the App Bermuda Triangle, including the notorious “I Am Rich App.” Oh, but clearly, it’s all done in our best interest, right? Apple is protecting us from ourselves? Surely, that Nullriver app that allowed for tethering our iPhones was a dangerous and malicious threat to our personal safety.

Gated Communities and The Ever-Changing TOS

But let’s not just harp on Apple – they are by no means the only company with a kill switch. The disappearance of apps from MySpace and, more recently, Facebook, is a constant source of news. Of course, in most cases, their removal is due to a violation of the terms of service, but not always. Back in the day, MySpace was happilyshuttingdown apps that competed with their own offerings, which led to the shutdown of apps from sites like Vidlife, Stickam, Revver, Photobucket, and Pyzam.

Then you have Facebook. Now that they have a healthy developer community, the company has decided to change the rules by which the developers must play. Where as before, apps were spread “virally” by incentivizing activity, now that is no more. In other words, developers will need to re-code their apps so they don’t reward you for sharing the app with a friend by handing out virtual cash or unlocking more features for you.

While Facebook users that have been barraged by spammy app invites may embrace this change, the message to developers is clear: Facebook can, at any time, change the rules and put your app out of business.

Facebook is but one example, though. As Nick O’Neill recently noted, this same situation could apply to any cloud application – like those that run on Amazon’s S3, for example. If Amazon deems an app to be malicious, they could just shut it down. “I think this is a riskier environment to run a business,” says Nick.

But We’re Safer, Right?

What do you get for giving up all this freedom and openness? Security and safety, of course. When things are locked down and tightly controlled, the benefit to the end user is security.

In fact, this idea that someone else, above and beyond the user, should have control over what’s permitted to run on our machines, be them PCs or iPhones, is the driving force of change in today’s new computing environment. To see what we mean, you have to read this interview with Jonathan Zittrain, cofounder of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where he discusses how the internet and computing as we’ve known it was just a historical accident. “Bill Gates never dreamed of controlling Windows applications [like this],” he says, when speaking of the shift to these controlled platforms of the future.


This new, controlled environment we’re discussing here isn’t just affecting a handful of web sites and the iPhone – it’s shaping up to be the entire future of the web, too. But where can you draw the line between what’s good for everyone versus what’s good for you? How do you feel about the fact that you are no longer trusted to know what’s best? How OK are you with letting others lock things down for you?

Perhaps the biggest question, though, is whether or not the move to this homogenized, restricted web is progress? Or is it that we’re giving up our own control and freedom at a dangerous cost?

Image Credits: Computer Eye, Mikey G. Ottowa; Power button, Guilleramo; Man Laughing, Checiap

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