iPad

Why government wants the iPad to succeed

I’m defending the iPad. Not because I’m an Apple fanboy. Not because I’m going to buy one. But because I think there’s potential to positively change the personal computing experience in a way that helps government sleep better at night. I’m not talking about the iPad itself, but what the App store can become via the iPad.

Currently, the way most us connect to the web is through the browser, which was meant to only take you from point A to B. Unfortunately, the world wide web is a dangerous place if you don’t know how to navigate. Every day, innocent consumers fall prey to malicious scams and phishing schemes, and there isn’t much the government can do to protect them.

With the App Store, not only do you access the internet without going through a browser, but the barriers to entry for service providers should theoretically weed out illegitimate third parties. With a structured vetting process (at least security-wise, theoretically) and a crowdsourced reviewing process, there really isn’t an incentive for virtual predators to get on the App store. For the time being, you could be pretty confident that your apps aren’t trying to steal your personal information or plant bugs into your device.

But the App store is only limited to the iPad and iPhone. Is that enough to really call this a win for internet security?

Yes, the App store is only available to the relatively small number of internet users with pockets deep enough to afford the Apple products. But perhaps, the overwhelming success of the App store would lead Apple to consider expanding to the personal computing platform as an alternative to the browser.

No, the browser is not going to be replaced anytime soon. And internet security on your browser or mobile device will never be completely bulletproof. But for certain types of online activity, such as financial transactions, account creations, or anything that requires personal identifiable information, wouldn’t we feel more comfortable knowing that the servers and personnel on the other side of these transmissions are really who they say they are, and will really do what they say they’ll do?

Will you read the Open Government Memo on an iPad?

I love the Open Government Memo, I think it represents some of the most thoughtful and seminal policy strategy I’ve seen in 20 years in government. I don’t know who actually wrote it for the President, but I think that person should get a medal. And whoever reads it and doesn’t find inspiration for technology’s potential role towards advancing the ideals of our democracy is simply missing out.

At Adobe, we have been lauded and criticized for our role in enabling open government. When we have been criticized we listen and learn so we can improve our business strategy to support the goals of open government. (If you don’t believe me, look to our current collaboration on Design for America with the Sunlight Foundation and PDF best practices forum on GovLoop as evidence of this commitment.) But regardless of your view of Adobe technologies, you will be hard pressed to find an Adobe decision maker who hasn’t internalized the Open Government Memo, felt inspired by it and willing to support its goals.

Conversely, I don’t think the decision makers at Apple have internalized it, because Apple’s recent actions reflect no understanding of Open Government’s true possibilities or principals. I still find it hard to believe that a company that founded one of the most generative platforms in the PC era (the Apple II – which shaped an innovative spirit that enabled the Internet era to follow) could possibly work so hard to close down the openness of the Internet. Yet that is exactly what the iPad and iPhone strategy does – a strategy that contradicts the President’s Open Government goals and undermines Internet era innovation. If you are not sure what I’m talking about, I’d suggest you read the introduction to Jonathan Zitrane’s Book, the Future of the Internet, and How to Stop It, which was written before the Open Government Memo was published.

Of course, if you’ve followed the recent news, you know Apple is at odds with the broader developer community. So you can color my point of view as you wish, but I’d still ask you to consider whether you think that Apple’s strategy contradicts the principals of open government along the three main pillars of transparency, participation and collaboration. Here is my argument:

  • Development for the App Store is not transparent. The Open Government Memo “promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.” But if government wants to use the App store to do this, they’ll have to acquiesce to publishing restrictions, development guidelines and performance metrics that are defined by a closed process dictated solely by Apple. Open government developers will not find transparency at the App store. In fact, the development process is so closed that the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) actually obtained the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement by using a FOIA request to a Federal agency! (I’ll save EFF an additional FOIA request, they can find Adobe’s license agreements here).
  • The iPhone and iPad are not participatory: The Open Government Memo encourages participation through “public engagement (that) enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions.” Mobile devices are a great new platform to enable this type of participation. You can get this kind of information on your iPhone from the White House iPhone application for example. But if you are one of the 298 million Americans who choose to use a different mobile platform, you don’t get the same access. Download is limited to Apple controlled devices. If you want non-Apple users to participate with a similar application (not mobile browsing), start from scratch, and remember those ongoing extra development costs come from the taxpayer.
  • Apple is not collaborating for mobile platform openness. The Open Government Memo charges government with collaborating across agencies, private sector and non-profits to innovate. What a great way to evolve formative ideas! If you want to see what collaborative mobile application development looks like check out the Open Screen Project (OSP) where dozens of mobile technology companies like Google, RIM, Intel, Motorola, and Verizon Wireless are working to provide a consistent environment for open web browsing and standalone applications. OSP includes 19 of the top 20 major mobile manufacturers – Apple chose not to collaborate. They are first to the mobile app market, and it appears that their vision for the future of mobile doesn’t include anyone else.

Six months ago, when government executives held up iPhone apps as examples of open government I cheered because the elegant and intuitive design of these devices helped people understand the possibilities of open government. But now I cringe because they are self limiting examples of a closed world where only the most fortunate have access. Open government strives to engage more people, but the government is not going to buy everyone a standard issue piece of proprietary hardware to do so. And it is unrealistic to expect that when the government builds one good application that they then have to expend the resources to rebuild it for every other mobile platform. In the Internet age, cross-platform application development is good for innovation, good for job creation, good for government and the future of our country. Innovating openness requires all of us to think along the lines of President Obama’s memorandum.

So I return to the question of my post – will you read the Open Government Memo on an iPad? Of course you can, but if you do I hope you will recognize the irony in doing so.

If you’d like an extra dose of irony for your re-read of the Open Government Memo on your iPad, please read it via a cross platform technology that is managed by the International Standards Organization, was invented by an American technology company, and spurred years of innovation – you can do so here in PDF . (And before you offer your comments juxtaposing the differences between PDF and Flash on this point, please consider Adobe’s record and philosophy on evolving open technology, which you can learn more about by clicking here)