In 2008, The Future of the Internet called attention to a “sea change” in the way consumer devices interact with the Internet. “The future is not one of generative PCs attached to a generative network,” the book warns; “it is instead one of sterile appliances tethered to a network of control.” In response to the security threats posed by malicious third-party code, increasing numbers of users will likely gravitate towards gadgets “tethered” by continuous communication between product and vendor. And this proliferation of tethered computing—the “appliancization” of PCs—will deal a serious blow to the principles of generativity and free expression that drove the early Internet.
Since the publication of The Future of the Internet, the ethos of strict appliancization has taken a new turn. In 2011, Professor Zittrain wrote an update on the book’s message: “at the time of the book’s drafting, the alternatives seemed stark: the “sterile” iPhone that ran only Apple’s software on the one hand, and the chaotic PC that ran anything ending in .exe on the other. The iPhone’s openness to outside code beginning in ’08 changed all that. It became what I call “contingently generative” — it runs outside code after approval (and then until it doesn’t).” This trend towards contingently generative models continues into the present day, and represents a shift similar in many respects to the one The Future of the Internet predicted.
Jon Brodkin and Peter Bright’s Ars Technica op-ed on the Microsoft Metro app store offers some valuable commentary on a big development in this “sea change.” The article recognizes that “Microsoft is imitating Apple in one very bad way, by limiting the distribution of Metro applications to a Microsoft-controlled app store… by bringing Windows to tablets, Microsoft could strike a blow for openness in a market dominated by a closed system. Instead, Microsoft is bringing the same restrictions found on iPads to both Windows tablets and PCs.” As forecasted by The Future of the Internet, devices that only run approved code are gaining popularity. Metro, the curated user interface that has found its way onto Microsoft’s tablets and PCs (in the case of the PCs, alongside a fully-functional desktop mode capable of side-loading non-Windows Store applications), won’t run applications from outside the Windows Store. Moreover, the apps available through the Store are subject to a bevy of restrictions on content. With these restrictions on installable applications come the restrictions on generativity that The Future of the Internet anticipated: “lock down the device, and network censorship and control can be extraordinarily reinforced.” And, as the Ars Technica piece observes, the Windows Store’s rules would exclude critically-acclaimed content like the video game Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, simply for its PEGI 18/ESRB M rating. It isn’t hard to extrapolate, as Brodkin and Bright do, that these rules could give rise to debacles similar to Apple’s (repealed) ban of a satire app developed by a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Though the Windows Store’s restrictions resemble Apple’s policies in many ways, there is a crucial difference: Metro-running Windows 8 products are designed as PC replacements, rather than sui generis devices like the iPad. And since Windows desktops have long been preferred gaming platforms, the theoretical exclusion of content like Skyrim from the Windows Store makes Windows 8’s emphasis on the Metro interface particularly jarring.
With Metro, Microsoft has made a decisive move towards contingent generativity. Brodkin and Bright note that “there are security benefits to a closed app store model, particularly for less tech-savvy users who may not understand all the dangers on the Web. There are also, arguably, convenience benefits; end-users can be reasonably confident that the apps they download will work correctly and be at least marginally useful…But while these security and convenience benefits might be enough to justify the existence of a curated app store, they don’t justify the decision to make that store the only option for all users. Informed users should be allowed to install applications from wherever they want.” Brodkin and Bright prefer a system like Gatekeeper, a fixture in newer versions of Apple’s OS X, from Mountain Lion forward. Gatekeeper gives users the choice to restrict their operating system to App Store apps and outside apps that have been signed with Apple-issued Developer IDs, or open up the device to all programs, whether or not they’ve been vetted by Apple. The “Future of the Internet” Blog is fairly enthusiastic about Gatekeeper: about a year ago, a post here suggested that “the middle ground of allowing non-App Store signed code may represent the best of both worlds.” But we were quick to warn that Gatekeeper strikes a tenuous balance: “one small tweak — lose that Control-click for sideloading — and OS X could fully merge with iOS, both in functionality and in security methods.” Metro’s riff on content control could be just that sort of tweak—especially given recent speculation that Microsoft may dump desktop mode in Windows 9, leaving only Metro.
Moreover, a contingently generative business model like the Windows Store’s carries some ethical implications that, while not damning, are certainly worth examining. Distribution systems like the Windows Store, Apple’s App Store, and the Android Market receive 30% of the sales revenue from applications sold in their stores (in the Windows Store, this cut drops to 20% after an app reaches $25,000 USD in revenue). Further restrictions on side-loading in new operating systems would drive a great deal of business towards big companies’ proprietary marketplaces—and with that traffic would come big payouts. With the uptick in store traffic that tighter gatekeeping would engender, it’s easy to imagine the equilibrium of Mac’s OS X Gatekeeper being forsaken for more restrictive, and more lucrative, operating systems. To analogize, a la The Future of the Internet: when the company that makes your computer requires you to install programs through their official store, it isn’t so different from the company that makes your toaster forcing you to buy from their bakery—and taking a cut out of every bread purchase you make.
Even though Windows 8 PC users can still make use of a fully-functioning desktop operating system, Microsoft’s failure to include a side-loading option for the heavily-emphasized Metro interface—particularly in devices marketed as PC replacements—is a step in the wrong direction. It’s also an indication that the seas are changing in the way The Future of the Internet predicted. Given that Android’s more open approach to outside applications still leaves the Android Market increasingly economically viable, Ars Technica is right to voice its disappointment in xenophobic operating systems like iOS and Metro.
 Though the Google Play approach to openness is far from perfect! Ad-Blocking apps were recently pulled from the Play Store, in a move that will come to illustrate just how viable it is to distribute a side-loaded Android app without any help from the Play Store.