This is a little bit inspired by The War on General Purpose Computing by one of my favourite authors, Cory Doctorow. I greatly respect his work, and see some very important ideas in his article. But I just can’t stop thinking, about how most people don’t really want a general purpose computer. Most people have no intention of writing programs to run on their computer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a developer. I couldn’t imagine having a world without computers that I could write and run my own code on. But most people aren’t developers. For people who don’t write their own programs, the fact that a computer will do whatever you tell it to, is, well, problematic.
Think about the whole problem with viruses and malware. In some cases, there are bugs in programs that allow things to run without the user intending to run them in the first place. Open network ports with buffer overflow vulnerabilities allow things to come in over the internet, and just run on unsuspecting computers. While some viruses, many of the more prevalent ones, have infected machines over the years in this manner, there’s still a lot of viruses that infect computers from people just clicking on the file to run it. You can display warnings before running anything that comes from the internet, you can lock down user accounts, and display even more warnings when an application requires administrator privileges, but users will still let it execute anyway, because they were promised smiley icons, or a crack for some game they couldn’t be bothered to pay for. And so the general purpose computer runs said program, even it it’s a program that will cause no end of problems for this general purpose computer.
I think this is the reason why the iPhone is such a big hit. You constantly hear developers and technology enthusiasts whine about how the Apple walled garden is evil, and causes so many problems, with apps that can’t get approved, or apps that were approved, and then mysteriously removed afterwards for seemingly nonsensical reasons. But many people love the walled garden. There are a few things at play here. First, applications are reviewed by Apple employees before being placed on the App store. So there’s a good chance that a malicious program wouldn’t make it past the approval process. Second, you have to pay money to get your app on the app store. So if someone were to write a virus and it go through the approval process, then Apple might have a not so hard time tracking you down. Thirdly, even if the app did get published, and assuming the developer used false credentials so they couldn’t be caught, the app could still be quickly removed from the store as soon as it was found to be malicious. Before it could cause too much damage People love their iPhones because they don’t have to worry about malware anymore.
The other kind of non-general purpose computer is the game console. People love these too. Not counting hardware problems like the infamous red ring of death, people generally don’t experience any problems with these machines. You never hear about people having to format their Xbox or run a virus scan on their Wii. Again these machines have no problem with viruses because they only programs they run are the ones that are vetted for by MS, Sony, Nintendo, or whoever else makes the console.
I don’t think most people care if they can run any program, including ones they write themselves. As long as they can find applications that do what they need them to do, it doesn’t matter that they can’ write their own applications, because they have no desire to do that. I think that the desktop PC is headed this way too. Regular people just can’t handle general purpose computers. I don’t mean that in a negative way. In the same way I could care less about how my furnace, fridge, or oven works on the inside, and I care even less to tinker with them to work outside their original specified uses, most people don’t care how their computer works, and don’t care to be able to reprogram them. To these people, computers are just another appliance.
Now, I guess the final point. Does all this mean the end of general purpose computers. Not on your life. That boat has already sailed. The genie is out of the bottle. Computers are simply too ubiquitous and too well understood to ever get to a point where it is not easy to get a general purpose computers. Take a look at the Raspberry Pi project and you might see what a mean. A very small group of people, producing only 10,000 computers is able to sell a true general purpose computer for only $35. Now, it’s not the most powerful computer, but it’s fully internet capable, can play high def video, and has enough power to play Quake 3. There’s enough computer enthusiasts out there that general purpose computers will never be unavailable. But I don’t doubt there will be a day when most houses do not own a general purpose computer, but instead run some appliance type computer that the user can’t program, but which meets all their needs. And then the users will be happy. And so will the geeks, because it means we won’t have to fix their computers anymore, because they got yet another virus on their machine, even though they swear the didn’t run anything they shouldn’t have, again.