If the current trends are any indication of what’s coming next, loosing our freedom might become inevitable. The “in” thing that everyone seems to be talking about at the moment is ecosystems. We are now at the crossroads where mobile and more traditional desktop computing is starting to merge into one unified experience. Together with cloud computing we are entering an era where we are constantly connected, not just to Internet but to our own media as well. Without a doubt this is one of the benefits of living in an ecosystem – everything is designed to work nicely together. However, it cannot be denied that living in an ecosystem essentially requires us to interact in pre-determined ways. You are only allowed to do certain things and the things that you are allowed to do you can only do in certain pre-determined way. All this is done in order to maximise the user experience i.e. keeping us from messing it up. Regardless it still doesn’t change the fact that ecosystems are strictly controlled. Some more than others.
By standing at the crossroads of mobile and desktop computing we are now starting to see how it will all eventually come together. At the moment there are basically two ecosystems that offer both desktop and mobile experience – Apple and Microsoft. Apple has its OS X for desktop and iOS for tablets and mobile devices. Microsoft on the other hand has Windows Phone 7 for smartphones and the upcoming Windows 8 for desktop and tablet devices. It is interesting to note that neither one has managed to capture the interest of both desktop and mobile users thus far. Apple has been very successful with iOS on mobile devices but less so with OS X. Whereas Microsoft has been dominating the desktop side for decades but has never been able to expand this success to the mobile side. Therefore Apple’s approach to marry these two worlds by making OS X more iOS like does not come as a huge surprise. Microsoft’s approach on the other hand is far more interesting. From now on tile based Metro UI will be THE design language used in all future Microsoft products: Xbox, Windows Phone and Windows 8. Desktops running Windows 8 will still be able to run the traditional and restriction free Windows desktop but tablets and other devices based on ARM will likely only support the Metro interface. The unifying thing that connects both Apple and Microsoft here is control. Users are no longer given full control on how to use their devices. The assumption is that the manufacturer knows best how the device should be used.
I got my first computer some time in the 90´s, i.e. during the era of computers and Internet. When it was all still very new and exciting as showcased in such films like Johnny Mnemonic and The Net. My first computer was an IBM Ambra 486. It was big, bulky and grey but at the same time fun, exciting and played Jones in the Fast Lane – and I loved it! I knew nothing about computers back then but I was eager to learn. Most of my learning was through trial and error but at the end I learned from my mistakes. There were no restrictions. I was free as a bird to explore and I loved it! In today’s world and with today’s devices your willingness to explore is confined to exploring the app stores. OS X 10.7 will by default restrict you from installing apps from anywhere else than the Mac AppStore. Not very exciting. I remember downloading custom BIOS software for my GPU in order to overclock it. Installing fans and UV lights to my PC case or upgrading the motherboard in order to get better score in 3DMark2000. Now, that was exciting! Of course Windows 8 on a desktop will still allow the above but desktops are slowly yet surely fading away. If the trend in these new ecosystems is to control the user experience at all costs and even by default to restrict app downloads to AppStores only what happens to the world of computing? I became computer savvy through exploration. How are my kids ever going to have this same opportunity on a strictly controlled iPad? So, I ask you: are the days of open, restriction free computing behind us? Is it OK to accept all these restrictions in order to experience something that is pre-determined by a committee? What about the experience of self-exploration? Unfortunately no-one seems to be keen on endorsing that experience.