What do Apple's iOS, Microsoft's Windows 8 and Google's Android all have in common? None of them works that well without the Internet. This trend has been developing for years and is now accelerating.
Don't get me wrong. I love the Internet and I like operating systems, such as Google Chrome OS, that require it. But I like having true platform choice even more. I was there for the PC revolution of the '70s and '80s, and I well remember how it undermined the ability of the IT department to control every last bit and byte. I don't want to go back to the days when users had no control -- but I'm afraid that's exactly what's happening.
Today, it's the big vendors that are taking control. Using an iPhone or iPad locks you into the Apple ecosystem. Want to use Adobe Flash? Too bad. Steve Jobs decided he didn't want you to have it, and that was that.
It's not much different with other technology choices. From time to time, things might happen that give the impression that everyone is trying to get along. Google, for instance, has got its maps working on iOS devices again, something that also required the goodwill of the keepers of the Apple App Store. Meanwhile, though, Google has decided to pull the rug out from underneath Microsoft.
First, it announced that it won't release apps for Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8. Then, it said that it would no longer support Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync free of charge. The net effect of that second decision is to make email and calendering programs -- not just for Windows, but also for iOS and Mac OS X -- a lot less attractive to users who have committed themselves to Google's offerings for their back-end groupware services.
An Old Game
Microsoft, of course, has been playing this game since, well, pretty much forever. To take one recent example, when you first start running Windows 8 or RT, you're encouraged to set it up with a Microsoft account. It sounds great. "When you sign in with a Microsoft account," Microsoft tells you, "your PC is connected to the cloud, and many of the settings, preferences, and apps associated with your account can 'follow' you between different PCs."
Let's say you do that. What happens when you try to start your Windows 8 laptop somewhere without Internet access? You can't log in. Ain't that a kick in the head? You have to open a local account and then set everything else back to the way you like it.
In all of these developments, I see signs that we're heading to a new era of platform lock-in. Your choices will be Apple, Google, Microsoft and possibly Amazon. Each seeks to lock you in not just with its particular devices and applications, but also with Internet services that either aren't available on other platforms or are very inconvenient to use on other platforms.
Sure, vendor lock-in is nothing new, and I've bemoaned this new trend before, citing completely different developments. But let's not forget that "PC" stands for "personal computer." If a handful of top vendors are allowed to decide what Internet services we can and can't run, the "personal" in personal computing will go away. And we will have lost something important.
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bps was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.