Jun 042011
 

Definition: Unmediated Software is software that the user can acquire directly from the producer, as well as install
and use, without the invasive intervention of a third party. A Mediated Software Platform is a platform that, despite having the ability to run third-party software, does not allow Unmediated Software.

As a side note: we would have liked to use the term “free software”, but it’s already heavily overloaded. So Unmediated Software it is.

 

Some context first…

Where do we find Unmediated Software? Up to the year 2008, practically all common software platforms were unmediated. You could just get the application package, install it on your machine and use it. Users could get the software by various means, depending on the producer, such as:

  • buying it at a physical store
  • buying it via the internet
  • Downloading it for free – freeware and open source software is common
  • Copying it from a friend
  • Developing the software themselves
  • Receiving the software personally from the developer

We’re talking here only about software platforms designed to run third party software – for example Windows, Linux, Mac OS, Windows Mobile, Android, and countless others. All of these systems accepted software installations from any source.

Up until recently, there was no need for the term unmediated software. It was the only kind there was. We took it for granted. There were always horror stories of initiatives designed to take away our rights – forcing all software to pass through corporate censorship, but these were just absurd doomsday stories. Until Apple implemented it.

What went wrong?

Apple produced the iPhone and opened the App Store. The iPhone’s operating system, iOS, just like the others mentioned, is a system designed to run third party software. In fact, that’s the main selling point of the device. The problem is that the device only allows you to install software from one specific shop owned Apple – the App Store. That means that the user can no longer install software without Apple’s direct approval, even if the user and the developer both already agree to he deal. Apple’s approval process gives it the right to reject software for any reason, without even revealing the reasoning; Allows censorship based on corporate, “ethical” or cultural grounds; and includes a heavy tax paid to Apple – 30% of the income. By the way, with a little math – that means that software costs about 42% more to the user.

The success of the iPhone encouraged other companies to adopt the same business model, most notably, Microsoft. Microsoft followed in Apple’s footsteps with Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 – another platform that does not allow unmediated software. Except this time, it’s Microsoft… this is getting serious. To make matters worse, it seems the next version of Windows, code named Windows 8, will use the same application packaging format, opening the door to the same closed-shop approach in the near future, coming soon to your PC!

We find this restriction to be an unreasonable intrusion of our rights. The demise of Unmediated Software, as well as our freedom, grows imminent.

The core issue

Note that the issue is not the specific regulations of the App Store. Apple opened a digital shop- that’s great; it certainly has the right to maintain a store. Apple also has full rights to choose which products it agrees to sell through its own shop. That’s fine as well. So, we don’t have any problem with Apple’s approval process, unreasonably restrictive as it may be.

That’s not the issue. The issue is that Apple is prohibiting its users from visiting competing software shops. Apple is also prohibiting its user from using other, non-commercial distribution channels.

Again, Apple can choose which apps to sell through its own store, but it must not be able to force its users to only use this store and no other.

Imagine buying a house, but only being allowed to shop for furniture at a single place. You are not even allowed to craft a small wooden chair of your making, unless it receives corporate approval. Do you find this acceptable?

Of course, we used Apple here as an example, the same applies to any other company and platform employing  the same dubious strategy.

Relation to the open source \ free software movements

Sadly, open source is simply irrelevant in a world of Mediated Software Platforms:

  • The write to freely modify and distribute software is a critical part of open source – and no longer possible in a Mediated Software Platform.
  • The costly approval process is a strong disincentive to open source software distribution.
  • We’ll have a bigger beast to slay :) The open source movement assumes we have our current rights and pushes for more consumer rights. Soon, we’ll have to fight for the rights we currently take for granted. Unmediated Software is bigger issue than source licensing.
  • Consumer (mis)education – as consumers grows more accustomed to restricted platforms, they will be less likely to care about open source and it will become harder for them to relate to the issue.

Meanwhile, we keep seeing good people talking about “free software”, “open source” and arguing over the details of licenses. All of this is won’t matter anymore is the new world we are about to enter.

The apologists

The following sections examine common arguments in support of the closed, mediated model:

Jailbreaking

iPhone users commonly point to the availability of jailbreaking tools to counter the argument against their restricted Mediated Software Platform. Jailbreaking allows users to hack their own device in order to circumvent manufacturer restrictions. Since jailbreaking tools are available for the iPhone, does it still qualify as a Mediated Software Platform? The answer is YES, of course. Jailbreaking is functionality that is not approved by the manufacturer. In fact, Apple claims it is actively fighting jailbreaking, and aims to get rid of it. We expect to be able to install software on our own hardware without needing to hack the device. We expect the manufacturer to specify and fully support our ability to install any software we want! In this case, there is even no guarantee jailbreaking will still work tomorrow. Apple could, both technically and legally, disable jailbroken devices at any time, for example by planting a dead man’s switch deep in the OS, just waiting to be activated remotely by Apple when it finally chooses to end jailbreaking.

Security

One excuse Apple gives is security– in theory, if the device can’t install unauthorized software, the threat of malware is greatly decreased. However, remember jailbreaking? That wonderful hack which makes the devices fully usable? Jailbreaking is an exploit to known weaknesses in the OS.

Apple’s chronic inability to deal with jailbreaking makes us question the reliability of Apple products. Apple claims to be fighting jailbreaking. And yet, hackers quickly manage to find bugs in any iOS version that allow them to completely bypass the system’s security. If the hackers consistently find critical vulnerabilities in Apple’s product, the kind that Apple claims to be actively working to fix, where does this put Apple’s reliability? If Apple’s quality assurance is so terrible, can we really trust their ability to create security mechanisms in any part of their software?

As iPhone users know, jailbreaking is an important “feature” to them. If the ability to jailbreak is ever disabled by Apple, the device will no longer be useful. However jailbreaking in itself is a great security risk, one which many users are forced to take. Giving unknown hackers complete control over your phone can’t be a good idea security wise, and this is exactly the direction Apple is pushing its users, so it’s funny security is considered a defense for this model.

Our Goal

We believe that it is imperative to maintain our right to install and use software, on our own devices, without third party intervention and censorship.

This is not a battle against Apple. Or against Microsoft. We only demand that this unreasonable restriction be removed. It is a last stand for our freedom.

At this point in time, we as consumers still take our basic software freedoms for granted. But we are starting to feel the winds of change. If we don’t fight this time, soon we’ll wake up and realize we can’t even install software on our own PCs without third party censorship. Several years ago, this would be just a sci-fi nightmare scenario. Today it’s a very real threat.

What can you do?

  • Ban all products based on Mediated Software Platforms
  • Write to the companies such as Apple and explain why you are banning their products.
  • Write to your legal authorities and ask for legal protection against this practice.
  • If you are a software developer – avoid developing for these platforms… while all of us still have the luxury of alternatives.
  • Educate others about the importance of Unmediated Software.
  • Join us!

Together we can make a difference, and hopefully before it’s too late.

Copyright Elemris 2011.     Icon courtesy of VistaICO.com.