Jonathan Zittrain tells a cautionary tale about Steve Jobs on this week’s On The Media. Zittrain’s concern looks to the future of indigenous, decentralized innovation on the Internet, but the implications of his message apply just as well to accessible technology for people with disabilities.
Consider the iPhone. You can develop an application for it, but you can’t install it on your phone or share it with others unless Apple approves it first. The upside is a more secure gadget, but the downside is that Apple becomes a gatekeeper, according to Zittrain, with “its own motives and incentives that are not always the same as the consumers it’s supposed to serve. When someone submitted an iPhone app that counted down the time left for the Bush Administration (“The End of an Error” was the app’s marketing slogan), Apple rejected it. “Steve Jobs wrote [the developer] when he complained, and said, this is an application that will offend roughly half of our users. What’s the point?”
And my strong belief is that so much of the code we now think of as central and crucial and cool and revolutionary is code for which, when most rational people first see it, their reaction is, what’s the point?
You could say that about something like Twitter … Somebody says, now people can update their status with 140 characters or fewer. And the obvious reaction to that is, what’s the point? Or with blogs or with Wikipedia – now at last everybody can edit a page simultaneously. I’m sure it’ll produce a reliable encyclopedia… You know, the right answer to that is, you guys are on drugs.
And it’s only when somebody can just try it out and doesn’t have to persuade anyone else that this is something for which there’s a point that you get this kind of innovation taking place.
That’s what I mean when I talk about re-imagining accessibility. I’ve had it with trying to persuade someone, day in and day out, to make something accessible. I’m tired of the indifferent shrugs that say, “What’s the point?” or “That would cost too much” or “I don’t have time to do that.” Well, you don’t have to make it accessible for me. I’ll hack it myself, thank you. I just want to try.
And speaking of gatekeepers and iPhones, Tim O’Brien sent an open letter to Steve Jobs about making the cult gizmo more accessible. Zittrain’s story suggests that Tim might get a reply, although probably not a thoughtful solution.
Listen to Jonathan Zittrain on OTM’s The Net’s Mid-Life Crisis: