The Questionable Authority

A number of people (including another blogger here at ScienceBlogs) have weighed in on the recent revelation of a patent application that describes a way to integrate advertising into computer operating systems. The patent application covers both traditional personal computer operating systems and a wide range of portable devices, including mobile phones. The system proposed in the patent application incorporates methods that ensure that the users will have to pay attention to the ads, and includes an option that would lock the operating system if advertisements are not locked. The patent was applied for by Apple, and the first-listed inventor on the application is Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs.

I’ve read through a few of the (predictable) objections to Apple’s plan. I was bemused both by the overwrought nature of some of the complaints (“evil”, “burn in hell”), and by the fact that virtually all of the complaints about the possibility of an ad-based operating system appear on websites that are either directly or indirectly supported through ad sales. That aside, most of the objections seem to miss something very important – the potential that Apple’s innovation has as a way of reducing the digital divide both within the USA and globally.

There are quite a few households in the US that cannot afford a computer – even a cheap one. If you’re in the 25% of renters that spend over half their income on housing, there’s a decent chance that after you pay for food, clothing, transportation, and health care you might not have the money to spare for even a cheap desktop.

For adults, not having a computer is an inconvenience. For children, it’s a tragedy.

There are very few occupations left that do not require some form of computer literacy. Very few of that remainder – the entertainment field notwithstanding – provide any real chance at upward social or economic mobility. Regular access to some sort of a computer has become a de facto requirement for anyone who wants to realize the American Dream.

The problem is that even cheap computers – like those XO laptops designed for the developing world – aren’t actually all that cheap. Using open source operating systems and software can reduce the costs, but there’s still the hardware. If you’re a single parent bringing in $1200 per month (which is more than minimum wage), even buying a two or three hundred dollar desktop is a substantial expense.

If Apple can sell enough ads to subsidize hardware costs for some of their computers, they can potentially make machines affordable for people who would not otherwise be able to afford them. I fail to see the evil in that.

Comments

  1. #1 Greg Laden
    October 26, 2009

    Mike: What is the reason that it is relevant than an objection (or any other comment) regarding this patent should not be launched from a web site supported by advertisements? Why is the predictability of the objections and issue? You could predict that I would object to, oh I dunno, maybe lynching or mass rape … does your ability to predict that afford any kind of valid commentary on my objection to such things?

    The ads don’t reduce a digital divide. They increase it. They increase it because marketing and marketing related retail service and sales relies on, thrives on, grows under conditions of, facilitates, creates, and feeds economic disparity.

    The same mind set, and in many cases the same exact people and corporate entities that do things like this (patent or create an adOS) have done their part to crush or deter efforts to advance OpenSource to solve the problems you correctly decry.

    No, Mike, I don’t trust the free market or Steve Jobs in particular to solve this dilemma. Spit out the Kook Aid before it’s too late, brother!

    If this patent is used for nothing other than to provide poor children with free hardware, then it will have been a good thing. I don’t think, though, that your efforts to dampen criticism of Big Computer are well placed at this time.

    You are also ignoring (and that’s fine… your blog post, you can focus on or ignore what you like, but this is an important part of the argument) the sad fact that potentially very successful efforts to get free hardware into the hands of children in Nigeria (for instance) failed not because the OpenSource based program failed, but because Microsoft Corporation paid people off to make sure it failed. That is a well documented and well understood event. That is your advertiser-based corporate world.

    Sorry, evil, or at least potential evil, is the operative word.

  2. #2 Janne
    October 26, 2009

    By the same token, advertising in childrens television programs are of course great since they reduce the “media divide” by giving poor kids access to television by way of commercials for fast food and junk.

  3. #3 Joachim
    October 26, 2009

    “after you pay for food, clothing, transportation, and health care you might not have the money to spare for even a cheap desktop.”

    Sounds like an attractive market for advertisers, people with no money!

  4. #4 davem
    October 26, 2009

    The Apple equivalent of the laptop I’m typing on now costs two or three times as much. If they were to reduce prices by having ads, they’ll sell at what?, the same price as the oposition? No thanks.

    I guess anyone mug enough to pay Apple prices to get pretty design is probably mug enough to pay what I do, and have ads in their face.

    As to the loss of the ‘American Dream’ because you can’ afford a laptop, I assume that this is some of American humour I don’t get?

    As a child, I didn’t have a computer (nor even a TV to watch), and I didn’t find it a tragedy at all. Isn’t this a different form of the hyperbole of which you’re complaining?

  5. #5 uqbar
    October 26, 2009

    The cost “reduction” from ad support is illusory – it is in fact cost shifting. Somebody (advertisers) is paying that money, and that is the worm in the apple. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune – that means that if I buy an ad-supported piece of hardware, it will not ultimately be designed or built to meet my needs, but rather the needs of the advertiser.

    Ad supported anything is a poor bargain indeed – witness the many (now dying) newspapers which are essentially organs of the local chamber of commerce. Witness television “news” which has steadily gotten worse under the demands of commercialization.

    Mere advertising is not a bad thing, but when “Mad Ave” is put in the driver’s seat, and becomes literally a driving force, we have truly lost our way.

  6. #6 konrad_arflane
    October 26, 2009

    As to the loss of the ‘American Dream’ because you can’ afford a laptop, I assume that this is some of American humour I don’t get?

    As a child, I didn’t have a computer (nor even a TV to watch), and I didn’t find it a tragedy at all. Isn’t this a different form of the hyperbole of which you’re complaining?

    When were you a child? Mike wrote that “Regular access to some sort of a computer has become a de facto requirement for anyone who wants to realize the American Dream.” (Emphasis added). Unless you’re in your early twenties or younger, I don’t think your childhood experiences are really relevant to this point.

    Whether or not this patent will actually *help* disadvantaged children get access to computers is another matter, of course. A more cynical person than Mike would probably expect the scenario in davem’s post (#4) to be more likely.

  7. #7 Dave X
    October 26, 2009

    “That aside, most of the objections seem to miss something very important – the potential that Apple’s innovation has as a way of reducing the digital divide both within the USA and globally.” So the ends justify the means?

    If OS manufacturers/advertisers pay a royalty to Apple to use this patent, where are they getting the money? If it the intention is to reduce the cost for the digitally challenged, will it actually reduce costs to the end user, and even if it does, is the ad-ware infested service a good thing?

    Coke could provide an ad-infested educational channel for some guaranteed school-age eyeballs, but giving an equipment kickback to the schools doesn’t necessarily make it a healthy.

    On the other hand, maybe Apple will let people use the patent for free and won’t let profits interfere with providing equipment to the masses. Or maybe Apple will use the patent to keep anyone from implementing the idea.

  8. #8 JGlenn
    October 26, 2009

    While I am glad that Apple is finally getting criticism for business practices, this is hardly a scorn-worthy move. Apple has come up with an option to potentially reduce the cost of acquiring technology. The inability to see a parallel with ad-funded websites is further evidence to the irrationality of the accusers. I personally suspect that some of the loudest voices are those that would benefit the least from this move.

    Much of the criticism is originating with the Open-source crowd. Greg goes so far as to say “This couldn’t happen in an OpenSource world.” Mozilla makes hundreds of millions of dollars for directing the open source Firefox search traffic to Google so that directed ads can be placed right on the top of the page. The same goes for WordPress. Yes, two of the most widely accepted open-source successes are funded in large part by ads. Oh the evil burns…

    Ultimately, a few kooks yelling about “corporate evil” and ignoring hypocrisy in their own camp doesn’t do anything to address the fact that the digital divide is real and causes the greatest harm to those that can afford it the least. They spout drivel and woo while decrying the evils of corporations and globalization. Greg goes so far as to blame economic disparity on marketing (and presumably, capitalism). That is pure and utter bullocks and I think he knows it. After all, when you think of pre-capitalistic societies, do you think of idyllic communistic villages or peasants rooting through the muck for a few nobles?

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    October 26, 2009

    Greg goes so far as to blame economic disparity on … capitalism … That is pure and utter bullocks and I think he knows it.

    Ha! How absurdly radical of me! Where did I ever get the idea that a system that rewards and protects the accumulation of wealth …

    … OH, never mind.

  10. #10 JGlenn
    October 26, 2009

    Uhm, Greg – can you name one working economic system that doesn’t reward and protect the accumulation of wealth?

  11. #11 Sam N
    October 26, 2009

    The cost of the computer is not what is driving the digital divide–at least not within the US. It is easy to obtain a computer for less than $100 on craigslist, sometimes for free. Reducing the cost of an Apple several hundred dollars by accepting advertising isn’t going to do anything to help the digital divide.

  12. #12 Mike Dunford
    October 26, 2009

    @Greg Laden (#1):

    The same mind set, and in many cases the same exact people and corporate entities that do things like this (patent or create an adOS) have done their part to crush or deter efforts to advance OpenSource to solve the problems you correctly decry.

    There is one simple, major, and glaring problem with trying to rely on the OpenSource movement as the solution to those problems: there are always going to be costs associated with hardware. Making a digital copy of a software program involves a negligible expenditure of energy; distributing a copy involves a minor use of bandwith. Making a copy of a computer design involves material components, which are not free, and which are manufactured by people who need to be supplied with the necessities of life. That’s not going to happen at a negligible cost under any economic system. It can’t. Distributing a computer involves moving a physical object from one location to another – something which, again, necessarily involves more costs than the digital equivalent.

    Hardware costs can be reduced, but they’re not going to be eliminated. Somewhere down the line, someone needs to foot the bill.

    @uqbar (#5):

    The cost “reduction” from ad support is illusory – it is in fact cost shifting. Somebody (advertisers) is paying that money, and that is the worm in the apple. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune – that means that if I buy an ad-supported piece of hardware, it will not ultimately be designed or built to meet my needs, but rather the needs of the advertiser.

    Ad supported anything is a poor bargain indeed – witness the many (now dying) newspapers which are essentially organs of the local chamber of commerce. Witness television “news” which has steadily gotten worse under the demands of commercialization.

    Ad supported is absolutely a poor bargain – I wouldn’t dream of arguing otherwise. I would (and do) argue, though, that even a poor bargain is better than no bargain at all.

    I also completely agree that we’re talking about cost shifting rather than a true cost reduction. (I was sloppy in my language use there.) As I pointed out in my response to Greg just above, hardware will necessarily always have costs that cannot be eliminated. Shifting the costs is (IMO) an improvement over what we’ve got now.

    In an ideal world, it would be easy to shift the costs from those who can’t afford to pay them to those who can, and it would not involve the need for those who are paying the costs to be compensated. (Coincidentally, John Lennon’s “Imagine” just came on the radio.) In an ideal world, PBS wouldn’t need to run de facto commercials before children’s shows to pay the bills.

    We don’t live in an ideal world. And we’re not going to change the world if we’re not willing to start out from the world we live in now.

    Ad-subsidized hardware and/or software is a crappy way of closing the digital divide. But I think it’s got a better chance of shrinking the gap – even slightly – than any other currently realistic alternative.

  13. #13 Mike Dunford
    October 26, 2009

    @Sam N:

    The cost of the computer is not what is driving the digital divide–at least not within the US. It is easy to obtain a computer for less than $100 on craigslist, sometimes for free.

    You’re assuming a bit too much there.

    If you don’t have a computer at home, don’t have access to the internet at work, and only get to use the internet if/when you have the time and opportunity to get to one of the few machines at the local public library, how do you learn about craigslist?

  14. #14 Sam N
    October 26, 2009

    You can find out about craigslist by even just reading the newspaper these days, but the most effective route would be asking around about how to get an inexpensive computer. From my experience, even as a teenager when computers were more expensive, the problems with obtaining a computer were more related to the parent’s desire to own a computer than to finding the money for it.

    If a parent with little money thinks that owning a computer is valuable, then I am fairly certain they can find a way to get one at a price they can afford.

    Let me put it another way. If they own a TV, they can easily own a computer. And do you know many lower class families that do not own a TV because they can not afford one?

  15. #15 JThompson
    October 27, 2009

    I hate to say it, but if you can’t afford even a cheap or used computer, you’re probably not going to be able to afford the broadband connection required to stream ads to your OS.
    Not everywhere has public internet. Hell, not everywhere even has broadband. (Especially not poor/rural areas.) So after the ads haven’t been updated for a while because buying food trumps internet access, would the OS shut off leaving the poor kid with a fancy paperweight? Sure it will, otherwise everyone will just block the stupid ads, which would completely defeat the purpose of ad supported OSes.

    Anytime a corporation does anything “For the good of the children!!!!” I get an urge to hide any children I can find from them. Same goes for “helping the poor”. Both are usually a thinly veiled way of finding new and interesting ways to screw people.

  16. #16 Jayne
    October 27, 2009

    This was a great article, thanks for posting.

  17. #17 JakeS
    October 27, 2009

    Since most of the discussion in this thread appears to revolve around the possibility of using lowered costs of computers to make access easier for poor people, permit me to propose a radical solution:

    Increase the purchasing power of poor people instead. This can be done in general, by implementing a social safety net worthy of a civilised country. Or, if that is ideologially unpalatable, by directly subsidising computers for poor people, on a model similar to food stamps.

    Or one could provide adequate public school services. If access to computers during a kid’s formative years is a de facto requirement for a successful education, then providing computers that the kids can borrow would seem to be as natural a part of the cost of operating a school system as providing classrooms and textbooks.

    - Jake

  18. #18 IanW
    October 28, 2009

    All of this really depends upon what Apple is actually planning to do, versus what it’s patented, but do you seriously believe that carrying advertising is going to make operating systems like Windows and the Mac OS cheaper? Good luck with that!

    You might want to note that carrying advertising on the Internet hasn’t prevented a movement towards a two-tier rate for internet access. Maybe that’s what Apple is going to do – develop a cut-rate OS carrying annoying ads, and a premium OS which carries no ads, but costs an arm and a leg?

    Ask yourself this (since you mentioned that you preferred to blog your response rather than simply comment on Greg’s blog): how would you like it if you were writing your blog, and every so often an ad popped up which you could not block and which locked-up your blogging efforts until you’d read it (however that’s defined)?

    Wait until your OS starts throwing up ads that unroll across the screen every time your mouse accidently rolls over it, or that pop up in the middle of the screen and bounce around in your face for 30 seconds before disappearing….

    The great advantage of this is that people are going to be so pissed off with these ad-based OS’s that they’ll abandon the big two commercial desktop systems and flee to an ad-free Linux derivative.

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