Linux and the truth behind the ‘post-PC’ era
Apple introduced its highly anticipated iPhone 5 yesterday. And as is to be expected with the introduction of any new iDevice, all the tech news sites went into an absolute frenzy. The major news outlets even caught a healthy dose of Apple fever, especially here in the U.S. Even in the midst of a presidential campaign, a new iPhone will always be the day’s top headline.
What interested me most about this entire ordeal was not the new iPhone, nor was it the fact that a small gadget can induce such hysteria. Rather, it was something that Apple CEO Tim Cook said during the introduction ceremony. Cook cited the popularity of the iOS device as proof we have entered a “post-PC world.” You hear this phrase quite frequently in the tech media these days. In fact, Microsoft is supposedly redefining the term PC to mean “personalized computing.” With the advent of tablets and smartphones, the traditional personal computer is being left behind. Or so they say…
In reality, the idea of a post-PC world is bogus if you take it literally. As others on the web have pointed out, iPhones and iPads are actually still personal computers. The smartphone you hold in your hand has more processing power than most computers had just decades ago. Sure, they come in radically different forms and sizes, but when you get right down to it, they’re still PCs.
When people talk about a post-PC era, I think they mean something different—if, that is, they realize it. Rather than signaling an end to computers, the popularity of devices such as the iPhone signals an end to openness and freedom in personal computing.
PCs have traditionally been machines that afford users all sorts of choices. Want to upgrade your graphics card? Pop your case open and stick a new one in. Want to run a different OS, such as Linux? Simply drop a CD into the tray. Linux as an OS and as an idea has always been tied to this conception of the PC as an open and free platform.
Devices such as the iPhone and iPad, on the other hand, completely restrict the user’s freedom. Want to run a different OS on your phone? Too bad—Apple won’t allow it. You’ll run Apple’s iOS and Apple-approved apps on Apple hardware, nothing else. Sure, there are ways to get around these restrictions, but the fact of the matter is that Apple wants to tell you how to use the phones, tablets and computers you buy.
Microsoft is no different. Windows has always been saddled with draconian product activation schemes and anti-piracy measures, but it was still a fairly open OS; you could use it on a wide range of hardware, and you could run whatever applications you so desired.
Now, however, Microsoft appears to want to copy the Apple model. Windows 8’s app store is designed to create an ecosystem Microsoft can control—and profit—from, and the corporation’s foray into hardware with its Surface tablets and its attempt to lock down PCs with its Secure Boot feature appear to be attempts to emulate Apple’s highly profitable practice of marrying software to hardware. In this type of setting, everything “just works” because it’s easier to develop for a closed, standardized platform.
For the price of things “just working,” however, we will be forced to sacrifice our freedom. This is where the post-PC world starts looking quite dystopian. It’s a world that threatens our freedom as computer users, and whether we realize it or not, it will have implications for our freedom as consumers in the markets we buy and sell in and as citizens in the countries we live in. Linux helps to guarantee our freedoms in the digital arena, and yet if Apple and Microsoft have their way, there may not be room for Linux.
So the iPhone isn’t killing the PC in the way you might think. A computer will be a computer regardless of whether it can fit into your pocket or takes up an entire room. What devices like the iPhone are killing, and what you should be concerned about as a user, is the spirit of the PC. It’s that spirit that fuels things like Linux, that provides the spark for innovation, that lets ordinary people like you and I use computers as more than simply appliances. The iPhone is doing away with the idea that computers should be free and open and replacing it with a hip and shiny cage.