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.