The experience-freedom axis

When I re-launched this blog, I’d been kicking around some ideas for things I wanted to write. A month has passed, and I haven’t quite managed to turn any of these into something I want to share. They’ve also started to converge on a single idea, though. Let’s start there.

The sense of “experience” that I want to convey is quality. In technology, a good experience is when a product (be it hardware, software, or service) augments or extends your own capabilities in a way that seems natural, or even enjoyable. I think this is the same sense of the word when used by “User Experience” (UX) professionals. In less words, it’s the thing Apple is good at.

The exact “Freedom” I mean is harder to pin down, but the Free Software movement’s “Freedom 0” is pretty close: the freedom to use something without restriction to how or why.

These two things haven’t always been opposed, and they often aren’t. Increasingly, though, Freedom is being abandoned for experience.

Here’s a concrete example: An iPhone can only run software purchased through Apple’s App Store. This is just the way it is. There has never been “freedom 0” on the iPhone, and this turns out to be a win for experience: an iPhone customer doesn’t have to think about where apps come from, or worry about installing viruses or malware. For most people the downsides of this approach are mostly theoretical (say, if you wanted to run or write an app that tracks drone strikes), and not worth thinking about. On Apple’s other computing platform (the Mac), you can basically do what you want. You can purchase and/or download apps from any source, and generally use the computer how you wish.

Except, in the latest version of Mac OS (Mountain Lion), there are features (mostly related to iCloud) only accessible to apps purchased through the app store. What Microsoft has done with Windows 8 is a shade more severe: the newly re-designed Windows interface (what used to be called “Metro”) is only available to App Store apps.

That’s the basic shape of the trend: locked-down mobile platforms have proven so good for experience (and lucrative for the platform owners) that freedom 0 is considered an acceptable casualty.

How big a problem is this?

I’m not sure. For one thing, what about other “freedoms”? Locked-down platforms are less susceptible to viruses and other scumware. As a customer, not having to worry about that kind of stuff is a kind of freedom; just like central app stores “free” you from having to worry about where you get software.

So, I’m not prepared to make a moral or ethical judgment on this trend, but I know I prefer to use tools without built-in restrictions. I don’t think people who choose otherwise are dupes, dummies, or “sheeple”– but the free options need to be preserved.