Zittrain is a bona fide member of the digiterati -- a cyberlaw scholar with multiple degrees from Yale and Harvard. He is the Professor of Internet Government and Regulation at Oxford University and co-founder of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. His latest book is due for release April 14.
Zittrain argues that today's Internet appliances such as the iPhone and Xbox hamper innovation. That's because these locked-down devices prohibit the kind of tinkering by end users that made PCs and the Internet such a force of economic, political and artistic change.
Zittrain understands why appliances are attractive to the average Internet user. They're neatly packaged, they're easy to use, and they're reliable.
"We have grown weary not with the unexpected cool stuff that the generative PC had produced, but instead with the unexpected very uncool stuff that came along with it,'' he writes. "Viruses, spam, identity theft, crashes: all of these were the consequences of a certain freedom built into the generative PC. As these problems grow worse, for many the promise of security is enough reason to give up that freedom.''
A More Restricted Internet
Zittrain argues that if the cybersecurity situation doesn't improve, we will migrate to a different kind of Internet. The new Internet will have as its endpoints tethered appliances such as iPhones, which are controlled by their manufacturers, instead of open, changeable PCs attached to an open network that can foster the next round of disruptive innovation. (See our slideshow of iPhone clones.)
"The future is not one of generative PCs attached to a generative network. It is instead of appliances tethered to a network of control,'' he warns.
Zittrain doesn't predict that PCs will become extinct any time soon. But he worries that PCs are being locked down and prohibited from running open source code that has driven much of the Internet's new functionality.
"If the security problems worsen and fear spreads, rank-and-file users will not be far behind in preferring some form of lockdown -- and regulators will speed the process along,'' Zittrain says. What we will lose in this transition is "a world where mainstream technology can be influenced, even revolutionized, out of left field.''