iOS: Can We Declare a Moratorium On the Prison Metaphors, Please?

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The women in this undated photo -- from the Great Depression, right? -- aren't iPhone users. They're behind bars for stealing bread.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Micah Lee and Peter Eckersley have published a post about iOS titled “Apple’s Crystal Prison and the Future of Open Platforms.” In it, they do what you’d expect the EFF to do in an item with that name: They object fiercely to the way in which Apple locks down the iPhone and iPad, allowing only apps it approves onto them and forbidding unauthorized customization.

Daring Fireball’s John Gruber linked to the piece, took issue with its comparison of iOS devices to prisons and ended with this thought:

The piece is supposed to be a criticism of Apple’s platform design and policies, but really, what they’re doing is criticizing users for enjoying it.

Reading that, I experienced an epiphany. That’s it!

When people compare using Apple products to serving time in jail–and boy, is that ever a common metaphor–they’re as unhappy with the fact that millions of people willingly do so as they are with Apple’s actual policies. (At least I hope so: If Lee and Eckersley are contending that Apple literally forces people to use iPhones and iPads against their will, I’m worried for them.)

I shouldn’t have found Gruber’s comment to be such a revelation. Last year, I wrote about Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond’s comments upon the death of Steve Jobs; both of these leading lights of open-source software compared Apple customers to jailbirds. I figured out then that they have a problem with technology users whose priorities are different than theirs. And really, since the prison metaphor is so manifestly silly, what the people who make it are doing is objecting to the choice that Apple’s customers make. The idea that other people take pleasure in something they dislike upsets them.

Here’s the sad part: Lee and Eckersley make some really good points. I too wish that Apple would introduce an optional ability to install unapproved apps. (Although, when you think about it, jailbreaking provides that ability right now, which means that the world isn’t all that far from Lee and Eckersley’s desired state.)

I also share the authors’ alarm over Microsoft’s decision to allow the distribution of Windows 8 Metro apps only through its own Windows Store. Microsoft would never, ever have made that move without the App Store’s example, so sure, let’s go ahead and blame Apple for it.

But by bringing up the prison thing, the EFF’s authors aren’t making their case more compelling. Instead, they’ve giving readers a convenient opportunity to roll their eyes and reject their argument. Especially readers who happily use Apple devices, and who bristle at people suggesting that they’re patsies for doing so.

If everyone stopped talking about the Cupertino prison system, I’m convinced that both Apple skeptics and Apple fans would be better off. And if we can stamp it out, who knows? Maybe I’ll even live to see the day when nobody reflexively compares Apple customers to cult members.