Apple, China and the war of ideas


There was a minor flap recently when Andy Rubin compared Apple to North Korea. Many turtle-necked Apple hipsters had their feathers mildly ruffled, and bloggers gleefully reaped a tiny flurry of page impressions. Quite right too, because Rubin was clearly wrong. Apple is nothing like North Korea, because Apple is the China of the tech world. Lend me your ears for a minute, while I make a broad-strokes argument for this statement.

Not so long ago, the consensus in the West was that political liberty and capitalism went hand-in-hand. Wherever one arose, the other would inevitably follow, and in their wake would come prosperity. When China started liberalising its markets, it seemed self-evident that the rise of capitalism in China would bring democracy in its wake. The Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 were supposed to be a sign of things to come, a precursor to wider revolution. The West's argument was persuasive - it was borne out by a century during which the world was a roiling cauldron of political and economic experimentation, and nearly every command economy had failed. Today, the international landscape has changed entirely. The West has had a catastrophic financial meltdown, and things are only getting worse. There is a sense that the US-led Western order is in decline, and the Chinese-led east is rising. China has been the fastest growing major economy in the world for a decade, and the Communist Party is more firmly in control than ever. Today, there's no apparent prospect of political reform. Chinese intellectuals and diplomats are beginning to mount an increasingly assertive and persuasive argument for a system of government that brings prosperity without liberty, and dictatorships the world over are listening very, very carefully.

In the software world, we've also spent decades arguing that freedom and prosperity go hand in hand. This is the "Open Source" justification for free software: a pragmatic position that we should have liberty not for its own sake, but because it produces better outcomes. This is also the argument behind open hardware platforms, behind open Internet standards, behind interoperability. Some bloody battles had to be fought with monopolists, but in the main the last 20 years have been a stunning success for openness. There has always been a minority who have made a more fundamental case for liberty, but it's important to recognize that they have lost the debate. The engine that drives the most important Open Source projects is entirely based on a superficial utilitarianism - the Googles and IBMs of the world don't contribute to Open Source because they love liberty, but because the financial return they get from doing so is greater than their investment. The fundamental distinction between openness and free-ness hasn't been important so far, though, because ideology and utilitarian arguments were aligned. Now, things are changing. No-one can deny that Apple's mobile device strategy has been a complete slam-dunk. The iPhone is the most profitable handset out there by far, and the iPad is shaping up to be huge. Apple's long-term plan is breathtakingly ambitious - it's making a play for complete dominance in the mobile market, with an integrated offering that controls everything from content to applications to the devices themselves. It's therefore making a play for total control of the way most people will experience computation in the near future. Not even the most die-hard free-software hippie can deny that Apple's success has been won on merit - their devices are simply, unmistakably better than the competition. Open platforms have been out-classed in almost every measurable dimension. So, we may be entering the next stage of the computer revolution with devices where every native application has to be approved by a single authority, where even programming languages and development tools are centrally controlled. Apple's competitors and imitators are watching and taking notes, because far from being punished by the market for this, they have profited beyond the wildest dreams of avarice.

Apple and China have put pragmatists who also value freedom in a quandary. In the past, practice and ideology aligned neatly: political liberty and economic progress went hand in hand, and so did open platforms and commercial success. There are now powerful counter-examples to this line of thinking, and it seems clear that making a pragmatic argument for liberty has been a strategic mis-step both in politics and in technology. Advocates of freedom will have to turn back to more fundamental arguments: human rights, ethics and morality. We should recognize that at this point in time, we're losing the war of ideas. I must admit, in my darker moments I'm pessimistic about our ability to make the case persuasively to a disengaged public.


To keep this post manageable, I've not talked about factors that muddy the waters for the technical side of the argument. For instance, I don't think Microsoft is a counter-example, and neither is Apple's support for open web standards. I'll save those for a future post. I'd also like to point out that I'm absolutely not anti-Apple - I own a lot of Apple gear that I use every day. My position regarding China's place in the world is a caricature of Stefan Halper's superb book "The Beijing Consensus: How China's authoritarian model will dominate the twenty-first century". You can listen to him speaking about this book at the Cato Institute over here.