A Perspective on Limiting Device Functionality

From Yochai Benkler - Wealth of Networks
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In Chapter 11, Benkler premises his “Device” section on the idea that “[u]biquitous access to such basic machines…is a precondition to the improvements in freedom and justice that we can see emerging in the digital environment” and “[i]t is [that access] to basic, general-purpose computers, as opposed to glorified televisions or telephone handsets, that lies at the very heart of the networked information economy.”

Benkler emphasizes the value of “general purpose” devices with “open architectures” because those devices best enable users to continuously explore, experiment, and access things outside the limited sphere of a specialized machine and allow customization without permission or restrictions from the manufacturer.

Benkler appears to get it right with regard to restrictive physical device regulations like the Fritz chip because those regulations remove computing flexibility from a device that already has it and much value is lost without that flexibility. It seems, however, that a line needs to drawn between that kind of device and (1) other limited devices and (2) devices operating on a proprietary platform.

When researching the Wireless Philadelphia initiative, the members of the Harvard Law School Internet Law and Politics semniar concluded that most of the people who do not have internet access also do not have computers – so the “digital divide” seemed to represent that first hurdle of obtaining a computer. Limited devices have a value in this regard because of their potential to bridge the digital divide.

Essentially, machines with limited functionality are likely cheaper and easier to use due to their limited purpose and therefore more likely to saturate the entire market. If someone prefers or can afford a machine that only sends emails, a general purpose computer hardly seems necessary. (While mobile devices with email functionality such as Blackberrys are becoming increasingly prominent, one should note that certain early email-only appliances that were introduced on the market never really took off.) And in actuality, much of the democratizing effect of the Internet is achievable through only a web browser and the trend over the past few years has been to web-enable everything – from email to instant messaging to customized information portals.

Perhaps MIT’s “one laptop per child” initiative best exemplifies the low-cost, limited functionality approach: the machines lack significant storage capacity, computing power, battery life and software. The result, of course, is a computer that can be produced for just over $100. The distribution of that inexpensive laptop results in gains from widespread dissemination of existing uses of the Internet at the expense of true “experimentation” that a fully functional computer provides.

The second consideration that Benkler neglects is that specialized machines may be better at their particular task than a general purpose computer because of advantages in user interface and technology. Machines that “structure their users’ capabilities according to design requirements set by their producers and distributors” are actually designed primarily to satisfy customer demand. People who play networked video games may actually prefer the networked XBox to their networked computer. The XBox bundles together all components necessary for video games, and none that the user does not need. The proprietary platform and network used by an XBox may be necessary for the device to function as it does or for Microsoft to be willing to create the device. In the future there is every reason to think that digital movie viewers may prefer the functionality of movie download to be embedded within their home theater than using a general purpose computer to do the same. And a proprietary platform may necessary for that functionality.

The user interface and technological advantages in specialized devices and proprietary platforms could easily extend to even more interactive purposes and it is possible that users would prefer them either for cost or usability. Blackberry handheld devices are an example of an emerging technology that provides such a service. The “glorified television” experiment of WebTV may have failed for any number of reasons, including poor timing, marketing, and its particular design, but it is shortsighted to give up on the idea of a light-footprint, low-cost device that enables Internet access using technology that already exists in most homes. Linking common devices, like a video game system or a television, to the Internet seems like the most reasonable way to ease the transition into a networked society and that in and of itself creates some value.

Thus, there is little question that devices with limited functionality or specialized proprietary platforms do come some cost of creativity and experimentation – these devices may not be able to create the Diana Ross and Lionel Ritchie “Endless Love” parody that has spread on the Internet or serve as a node in a peer to peer network. Regulatory restrictions on devices certainly act as an obstacle to the networked information economy, as Benkler describes. But there are benefits to specialized and limited functionality machines, whether they develop in response to regulatory restrictions or independently of them.