The future is mobile, but will it be participatory or proprietary?

Filed Under (mobile devices, smartphones) by Mark A.-W. on 09-04-2010 and tagged ,

What could be a more perfect recipe for learning opportunities than the introduction of each new increasingly sophisticated mobile device and the growing numbers of smart phone users worldwide? E-learning developers are clearly eager to apply their ideas and skills in the mobile kitchen and cook up some new mobile innovations.

Mobile learning will be increasingly rich, pervasive, and personal, finding its way into nearly every facet of life—any time, any place, anybody, loaded with place-based GPS data and user tags, a new facet of reality augmenting our understanding of our lives and our world.

But will mobile learning be fundamentally truly participatory or actually proprietary? Will it be extensible and interoperable, where third-party development extends participation, innovation, and openness; or will it be device dependent, closed systems controlled by proprietary gatekeepers, where “participation” occurs only by the terms set by the device vendors?

This essential question, raised by Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard professor and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, in The Future of the Internet, can and should be asked regarding the future of mobile devices.

Zittrain describes the historical progression of computing and network systems—an arc from a proprietary model to a generative or participatory model and back toward a proprietary model.

Zittrain starts his story in 1890, when the U.S. government commissioned Herman Hollerith to tally the U.S. Census using a punch card system he had devised. Hollerith’s machine business was a precursor to IBM and a proprietary or vendor-centric generation of computing machines.

The key features of a vendor or proprietary system is that the manufacturer determines the specific purpose for its use and designs it so that the user can accomplish that specific use relatively easily and not much more. If the user needs additional functions, they must rely on the vendor to provide upgrades or new equipment, in addition to maintenance. The vendor essentially locks in future business for itself.

In many cases, the vendor system works well—a coffee maker does its job, and a typewriter does its. If such a machine breaks, consumers accept that they may need to replace a part from the manufacturer or purchase a new one. The use is discrete enough that being beholden to a vendor does not impact the rest of one’s life (personal) or operations (business).

Zittrain then describes a new generative or participatory movement with the rise of personal computers in the 1980s and culminating with the height of the Internet and World Wide Web. The key feature of participatory systems is that the manufacturer doesn’t determine what you will use it for—they leave it up to the user to either develop their own applications or install a variety of applications developed by a spectrum of third-party vendors. The code is open to being altered; anyone can join and use the networks; people can communicate between different types of machines and service providers.

The benefits of participatory systems are clear—they encourage innovation and entrepreneurship while supporting the broadest number of users.

Open, participatory systems, however, are not always ideal and sometimes not feasible, as Zittrain admits. These systems are vulnerable to security issues, and because people are allowed to tinker, they cannot be relied upon to operate 100% as expected all of the time.

In other words, generative, participatory systems allow the world of users to create marvelous, unexpected new applications, but if what you really want is to be assured that your coffee will brew as desired every day, you may be better off with a proprietary machine from a specific vendor.

So, what do we want from our mobile devices? What is more important—that they operate consistently for specific purposes, or that we are allowed opportunities for participation and unexpected innovation?

If the decision is left to the mobile device manufacturers and service providers, they will choose the proprietary path to the future as that is likely in their best interest. But that may leave mobile learning in the less-than-ideal position of being tethered to the constraints, formats, and fates of the vendors.

To consider the impact—imagine if Amazon or Apple or any other company had the power to set requirements for and approve or remove all your current e-learning materials on the Internet, and to take a percentage of the profit for the pieces of your business they did approve?

Who’s going to call the shots and make the demands in mobile learning’s future? Are you concerned or complacent? Too excited by all the great potential of these devices to see where the road could lead? What other options do we have?

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2 Comments Already, Leave Yours Too

Ariel on 13 April, 2010 at 1:49 pm #

Thanks for this article. What concerns me most is that it’s one short step from proprietary (read corporate) control of internet content to political control as well. Not a time for complacency and lust for toys.

jolie styvers on 17 April, 2010 at 9:08 am #

In my opinion, it has gone down to proprietary already.

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