Walled Gardens and Exploding Cars

You can replace any consumer product on the market without much of a problem. Want to buy a Chevy truck when your Ford sedan needs to be replaced? Considering moving to home-brewed tea instead of Starbucks coffee? All done with your Samsung phone and now you’re on the market for a Google Pixel instead? Piece of cake. Discard the old thing, pick the new thing, and you’re off and running.

You can also mix and match any consumer product you’d like with any other. You can use a Sony Playstation with a Vizio TV, or a Microsoft XBox with a Sony TV. You can drive any car or truck on any road you’d like. You can eat a meal from wherever you want using dishes and flatware from wherever you want. The small details may change, but the overall experience is the same.

That’s the way it’s always been for physical goods, and people think that same approach applies to the digital world. But it can’t, and it doesn’t, because the digital world is an entirely different thing. Why? Because your knife can’t be hacked, but the computer in your car can. And that calls for a different design, one that focuses more on security and trust than any physical product needs to.

When you turn on your car, there are a lot of computers humming along doing their job. But imagine if hackers could control your brakes or your steering wheel without your permission. That would be a huge problem, and over time people would learn to avoid that particular make and model of car. It would be seen as too dangerous. Dangerous enough to be illegal.

Now imagine a world where all cars were easily hacked, causing billions of dollars of damages a year. What if every night on the news there was another story of a car computer taken over by shady forces, causing horrific car accidents and traffic jams? Maybe we’d erect barriers around highways and bridge to make it harder to crash cars off the side of them. Maybe we’d all get used to installing and patching our anti-virus software on cars. But the attacks would still continue, because professional hackers will always be one step ahead of mainstream drivers.

You can see where I’m going with this. Especially if you’re old enough to remember how badly viruses and Trojans ran amok over the last 20–30 years in personal computing. Computers get hacked, and always will, because they’re far too open, by design. This is a problem that’s always been there, and has never been addressed fully. For all the benefits of PCs, and there are many, one of the biggest weaknesses is how easily hacked they are.

Now imagine one car company deciding they’d lock everything down and “own the whole widget.” They’d write their own hardware, software, and services, and tightly control access to any third party. In making these moves, they’d be reducing the “attack surface” (as hackers would say) of the car to make it more reliable and less hackable.

Two things would happen in our rhetorical exploding cars world: a groundswell of support from mainstream drivers who are tired of their cars exploding, and charges of anticompetitive behaviour from those same third party companies who want their cut.

Which brings us to today.

Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft each have their own gaming console. And in all three cases, the devices are completely locked down. If you want to buy a game, you go to their official game store, pay them money, and then it will run on your console. You are not allowed to bypass the store to install apps (called “sideloading”) and every one of those store apps is charged a uniform 30% fee. Nintendo does it, Sony does it, and Microsoft does it.

Some people are upset by this. They argue that 30% is too high, or that they should have the freedom to install anything they want. But the vast majority of people don’t know about any of this. All they know is that they’ve never downloaded a virus or been defrauded by a game on their gaming console, and things Just Work Like They’re Supposed To.

Try telling these people they’re missing out on content, and they’ll tell you they already have tens of thousands of games to chose from. Try telling them they’re in a “walled garden” and they’ll just shrug. The thing about a walled garden is it’s pretty nice in there. Better than untamed wilderness. Or exploding cars. Or ransomware apps crippling state governments and private businesses.

The latest tech kerfluffle is that Epic Games, the creator of Fortnite, is suing Apple and Google for charging them the same 30% they already pay on consoles. They claim that smartphones should be more like desktop PCs, where you can install anything whenever you want. And if you get hacked, or download a virus, or a fraudulent app steals your credit card info, their supposed argument is that those headaches are worth the price of freedom.

It’s not an accident that almost every computer in your life is locked down. No one outside the nerd world is asking for their dishwashers, cars, factory floors, vacuum cleaners, traffic lights, medical equipment, consoles, or smartphones be easier to hack and require anti-virus software to run safely.

Instead, people are asking for the computers in their life to do their damn job with as little effort as possible. Which means more control exercised by the app stores, with full time staff monitoring for fraud, viruses, and other abuse. Which means a curated store. Which means a 30% overhead.

And we didn’t get here by accident. We got here after trying literally every other approach, and they were just too fiddly, untrustworthy, and insecure. When Apple invented the App Store in 2008, it was met with howls of protest by the old guard because it dared lock things down. But it was met with broad agreement and enthusiasm from the mainstream. People voted with their wallets, and here we are.

A walled garden will always beat an exploding car.

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Jon Bell

Jon Bell

Designer, writer, teacher. I love building things.