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OS X and iOS are not jails


I've always had a problem with the term "jailbreaking" when it comes to Apple's mobile devices. The term "jail" came into usage long before iOS in reference to isolated user-space instances, but that old meaning seems to have been obscured through both overuse and continued attempts to paint Apple as a dictatorial company interested only in hamstringing users of its devices. I've let "jailbreaking" slide until now because even though I think it's a loaded term, it's also a nice, short way to describe the act of opening the device to greater customization than Apple offers out of the box. It's also a better term than Android's "rooting," which sounds a bit rude in my part of the world.

In the wake of Richard Stallman's epically tasteless diatribe against Steve Jobs last week (Google for it if you're truly curious, I'm not serving him any page views), I've decided I can't let this slide anymore. In addition to saying he was glad Steve is gone, Stallman also called Jobs "the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom." So according to him, Mac users, iPhone users, iPod and iPad owners are all imprisoned and too stupid to realize it.

It's at this point that I have to wonder whether Stallman or any of the other members of the free software movement have ever spent any appreciable amount of time in an actual jail or jail-like environment. I'm betting that few if any of them have. If they had, they'd see as I do just how full of hyperbole (and something else that rhymes with "chit") the "jail" metaphor is.

I've never been in prison either, but as an enlisted member of the US Navy in the late 1990s I've been in the next "best" thing to it. The Navy was an environment where virtually every aspect of my life was wrested out of my control. I had no say in what clothes I wore, when I could sleep, or how to do my job, and my options for entertainment during my (incredibly rare) downtime were pitifully limited. As part of the Reactor Department, weeks at a time could pass where I never even saw the sun while my aircraft carrier turned circles in the Pacific Ocean. Basic amenities and liberties that civilians take for granted became distant and cherished memories.

Worst of all, I couldn't just say I was fed up with it and leave. I was locked in, with no options to dissent when I felt the system wasn't offering me equitable treatment. Life in the military was the ultimate paradox: while defending the freedom of those back home, I had next to none of my own. It remains the worst period of my life, and no amount of compensation could ever convince me to repeat it. Plenty of people serve in the military and don't have as poor of an experience as I did, but nothing could ever motivate me to go through that again. The Navy may not have actually been a jail, but it was as close to one as I ever intend to come.

Equating the modern computing environment of OS X or iOS with that kind of experience is the worst kind of hyperbole. I find it difficult to believe that either Richard Stallman or anyone else pushing the "jail" metaphor for iOS and OS X devices ever experienced anything like that.

Don't mistake what I'm saying as a diatribe against the idea of free software itself. Despite the fact that its UI is kind of abominable, VLC is an app I consider an essential part of my computing experience. Several key components of both OS X and iOS were built on open source software (yes, I know that's not the same as "free" software). And "jailbreaking" ended up being what convinced Apple to launch its App Store in the first place, vastly expanding the utility of the iPhone beyond its completely locked-down beginnings.

Having said that, from my perspective many arguments from free software advocates come across as the kind of petulant all-or-nothing proposition that's become an increasingly common argumentative fallacy over the past decade. Essentially it sounds to me like the most fervent of the free software enthusiasts are saying, "Either you give me the freedom to do whatever I want, whenever I want, or else you're Hitler." It's the kind of argument virtually every one of us pulls on our parents at least once when we're teenagers, but most of us grow out of that phase and realize that we must trade away some individual freedoms in order to properly function within a society of rules.

Stallman is basically a mountain man when it comes to computing. He rolls his own OS, doesn't use a browser to surf the web, and he goes out of his way to select only computing hardware that can be loaded with free software from the BIOS on up. In the 19th century he might have been the type of man who built his own log cabin in the deep forest, hunting and trapping everything he ate and living off the land, independent from society and glad of it. Where Stallman errs is in his belief that anyone who doesn't choose to live that way is automatically a prisoner. What he's advocating sounds a lot less like freedom and more like anarchy.

Living in modern society means trading away some freedoms for the sake of security and convenience. In theory I could forsake civilization and all its inconvenient rules and strictures, go live in the forest, and survive off the land -- millions of years of evolution have given me the basic tools I need. The proposition has seemed tempting more than once. But I like electricity, and running water, and being able to go to the grocery store for food instead of spending most of the day foraging and hunting. For the sake of those conveniences, I accept a number of restrictions on my freedom. I pay taxes, and I pay bills, and I enter into an implicit contract -- a user agreement, if you will -- with my city, region, and country: I agree to follow your rules in exchange for using your services. If following the speed limit and not being able to beat the hell out of anyone who irritates me without repercussions is the price I pay for Internet access and mochaccinos, then so be it.

Does living within the law mean I'm living in a prison? Some people might make that argument, but my counterargument is those people are whackadoos.

In the same vein, I could alter my computing environment and dedicate myself to the sort of "wilderness computing" that Stallman engages in. One of the laudable things the Free Software Foundation has done is make that choice possible in the first place. Instead, for the sake of convenience, I choose a computing platform that gets out of my way and lets me do the work I need to do with a minimum of hassle. Instead of building my own log cabin, my MacBook Pro is a pre-fabricated home, complete with central heating and air conditioning. Yes, it comes loaded with proprietary software that I'm not technically "allowed" to tinker with, but that tradeoff is acceptable to me when I don't have to spend any time at all writing the software, compiling it, or debugging it in order to get it to work. Someone else has done all of that work for me -- the same way the city of Palmerston North paved the road in front of my house and freed me from the need to do so myself in exchange for a portion of my income.

Simply put, the kind of freedom Stallman advocates is not one I find particularly enthralling. Safari may not be "free," but it's a hell of a lot more convenient than using wget to email web pages to myself. My iPad and iPhones may be tools of a "walled garden" approach to computing, but they do what I need them to do, every time, and without me having to tweak around the guts of their code in order to coax them into doing my bidding. How is that not freedom? How is that in any way equivalent to living in a prison?

Stallman might say I've sacrificed too much in the name of convenience. I'd counter that his vision of computing is unsuitable to the vast majority of the computer-using public. Linux has had over a decade to prove itself, but literally the only people I know in real life who use Linux on their own computers also have degrees in Computer Science. Most people I know neither have nor want the specialized knowledge necessary to embrace the kind of software the FSF advocates; instead, virtually all of them gravitate toward proprietary platforms featuring interfaces of varying degrees of polish, and the most satisfied computer users I know are the ones using operating systems that require a bare minimum of tinkering. iOS is about as tinkering-free as you can make an OS while still retaining usability for a broad range of users. The proof of what users really want out of computers shows in the continued success and adoption of iOS devices throughout an almost bewildering array of use cases, with everyone from airline pilots down to preschoolers gladly hopping on board. It doesn't even occur to most of those users that they should tinker with these devices, because the devices already do what they want them to do out of the box.

I used to be a tinkerer. I owned a 1969 Chevy Impala for years, and I did all the maintenance and repairs on it myself. I could have stripped that car down to its bolts and put it back together again, and I very nearly did exactly that several times. Eventually I realized I was spending more time working on the car than I was driving it. Now I have a Toyota Echo, and other than changing the oil most of the car is a complete mystery to me. I couldn't swap out the transmission on this thing even if I had instructions. I open the hood and see a cramped mishmash of parts that I entrust to the local mechanic's specialized knowledge; the sum of my interaction with my car is now "Foot goes on gas pedal, car goes where I steer it." Guess how often I miss the Impala? Almost never.

The motives of the FSF are worthy ones, but their essential message is getting lost in the noise from stalwarts like Stallman. I went to a "conference" on sustainable development a few years ago, expecting a serious discussion of serious issues. When I got there, I found instead a bunch of hippie drum circles, people in tents trying to sell me healing crystals, and a guy offering didgeridoo massages. For fifteen bucks, this guy would hover around you and blow a didgeridoo at you for ten minutes. After seeing that, I'd have dismissed as gourd-baked nonsense any message the "conference" might have promoted even if they'd put Stephen Hawking on stage.

Saying you're glad Steve Jobs is gone and calling OS X and iOS users "fools" in "a jail made cool" is a deep-tissue didgeridoo massage. It's a load of noise and hot air that ultimately accomplishes nothing other than irritating people who might otherwise have listened to what you had to say. As Harry McCracken points out, even the most deeply "imprisoned" of us still have the choice to not buy Apple's products, to not use Apple's software, and to dedicate ourselves to free software and open platforms instead. The fact that so few people are going down that route doesn't mean we're blind to what we give up when we use proprietary platforms. It simply means we prefer the digital equivalents of paved roads, low crime, and clean water to the more liberated but also, paradoxically, more constraining alternative.

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