Monday, September 28, 2009

Integrated vs. open: what's more "free"?

OK, first of all, don't get me wrong.  I am totally an open-source advocate.  I worked in open source a lot at Sun, and I make use of a lot of open source in my day job.

But I also have a Mac and an iPhone.  As a matter of fact, many developers in the open source community have Macs and iPhones.  But Apple is the King of Proprietary.  So what's going on?

I recently got a comment on my Facebook page when I mentioned I was trying to unlock my wife's iPhone, basically warning me to stay away from proprietary systems that try to lock you in.  Now, I don't believe phones should be locked, or that you should have to revert to a downloaded software tool that hacks into the phone to unlock it.  But this comment did get me thinking: why do I use the iPhone even though it's proprietary and does try to lock me in, as does my Mac?

The problem with Apple's stuff is, it's just so gawdawfully easy to use.  My wife observed the same thing I did three years ago: "hey, this stuff just works!".

Apple can do this because they're proprietary and closed - they can build a completely integrated system and not worry about having to build something that works when it's pieced together by different vendors with different configurations.  The can focus on their configuration and just make it work.

So, when it comes down to it, I'll take proprietary over open when it offers such incredibly obvious advantages as the Mac and iPhone do.  Have I sold myself to the Devil in a Black Turtleneck?

In the midst of those ruminations, Tim Bray tweeted a link to this article in the Economist, that compares Mac vs. PC with our banking and health care systems.
Like Microsoft operating systems, America's health-insurance system is incoherent, hard to understand, often dysfunctional and bloated by obsolete legacy systems. (Though unlike Windows machines, it's not cheap.) Different parts fail to operate properly with each other, and the whole thing is incomprehensible to most users, patients and doctors alike. But try to set up a central authority like MedPAC to make decisions about how to fix Medicare, or to mandate that policies cover a set of basic conditions, or to make end-of-life counseling available to seniors so they don't go through their final weeks in a blizzard of legal confusion—try to fix any of this stuff, and you'll be accused of "taking the control of health care out of the hands of patients and their doctors." This rhetoric is often driven by vested commercial interests. Medical-industry groups don't want a panel of experts making decisions about Medicare because it reduces their ability to buy concessions through congressional lobbying.

The same goes for the banking and credit-card industries, where small-print legal confusion is used as a tool to extract money from customers, and efforts to ban such practices are attacked as restrictions on consumer freedom. In health insurance or credit cards, freedom's just another word for not understanding what's in your contract. A perfect illustration, from Republican congressman Jeb Hensarling: "The ironically named Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) would have the power to strip from consumers their freedom of choice and restrict their credit opportunities in the midst of a financial recession—all in the name of 'consumer protection'. Positively Orwellian."

What's Orwellian is describing your credit-card company's ability to arbitrarily raise the interest it charges you on past debt to 35% as "freedom". More broadly, we need to move away from the Orwell "1984" paradigm. It was a brilliant description of the most important threats to freedom in the middle of the 20th century, but it no longer describes the most important threats to freedom today*. It was already clear how creaky the paradigm was in 1984, when the Mac ad came out; it's only gotten creakier over the past 25 years. Orwell didn't pay much attention to the problem of an oppressive blizzard of "choices" designed to take advantage of the consumer or citizen by manipulating asymmetries of information. But that is the way the American commercial and political landscape feels much of the time

Definitely something to think about. What is the true freedom here? And, in terms of health care and other social services, who is benefiting from this 'freedom'?

No comments: