Open Source, Now More than Ever

Apple’s headphones blunder is an opportunity for designers to get involved.

Apple’s new iPhone 7 costs roughly ten times as much as a high end Android phone with equivalent features — and that’s before springing for a new pair of $159 wireless AirBuds.

So why does anyone choose to buy an iPhone in the first place?

Because aesthetics matter.

I work on Android and iOs devices every single day. My company develops and tests continuously for both platforms. Android is an open system. iOs is a closed system. Both were developed by giant corporations of dubious moral authority. Both contain largely the same functionality.

People don’t choose the iPhone because it is “easier to use.” They certainly don’t choose it because the tech is better, it runs faster, or because (in 2016) more apps are available. They choose it because it looks gorgeous. Smooth, slim, and sleek. Like liquid silver money.

The iPhone will get you laid. It will get you a raise, or a promotion. It is everything that we in post-millennial America supposedly aspire to. The iPhone is cheaper than a Rolex, and smaller than a car. It looks bright and shiny as you are texting by the bar.

Call it marketing, call it design, or call it art. Just don’t dismiss its influence.

We all know Steve Jobs was a genius at it. I know a lot of artists. A few I would even call geniuses. But most of the artists I know are reluctant capitalists, if they are capitalists at all.

If you have read this far in the article, it may have occurred to you that Apple products don’t really look as good as they used to. Something has gotten stale. Apple has ceased to be a design or product innovator, even as it remains tremendously effective as a money and branding machine.

Planned obsolescence is bad for consumers, worse for the planet, and worst of all for creators and innovators. What is more mystifying is how it continues to persist in the fiercely competitive mobile phone market.

This is planned obsolescence in its most naked and aggressive form. 
The new earbuds require their own charger, and do nothing that wired headphones did not do better, at a lower price point. Yet they are mandatory for new iPhone purchasers, unless you want to mess with a clunky Adapter kit. The new headphones are easier to lose, harder to charge, deliver no improved sound quality or other tangible benefits. But they are a new piece of equipment for Apple to sell.

The cycle of planned obsolescence, for cell phones in particular, does irreparable harm to the planet. If you don’t believe me, here are some pictures of Baotou Lake in Mongolia. Read the story. Read about e-waste. And see if maybe you can’t hold onto that 2-year-old phone for an extra year.

Closed systems limit creativity. Think about the urge to tinker, to improvise, to jailbreak, to mash up, to mix and match. Think about what happens when you can only paint by numbers and that paint is only available from the authorized dealer, by mail order, if your credit checks out, your order is approved, and the paint company’s review board verifies that you’re not painting anything funny looking or subversive. Think about what the world looks like when you create inside a walled garden.

That is where the web is going, we are told.

We are told that is the only way.

Bullshit.

Linux runs better and faster and on more computers than any proprietary operating system ever created. Bitcoin revolutionized the world’s money and financial systems. I am typing this essay on Mozilla Firefox, and there is a respectable chance you are reading this article on the same.

What do all these technologies have in common? They are open source.

They became dominant, not because they had millions of venture capital backing them, but because of the talent and passion of the individuals — mostly unpaid, often with other jobs — who contributed to building and testing them. Open source is a fascinating phenomenon. Facebook runs on PHP — an open source computer language. AirBnB runs on Ruby on Rails — another open source language. We are talking about the DNA of the Internet here, and then some. At its best, it outperforms commercial software and becomes the de facto market choice.

I am not going to speculate about what has been responsible for the success of open source over the past three decades, except to propose a hypothesis:

When creative people are given the structure and mechanisms to form a community that can efficiently organize and delegate work, very little can stop them.

I am going to say that the open source community needs designers and UX professionals, like Donald Trump needs a different hair stylist.

We are living in the age of MakerSpace. We are living in a time when tools and technology are easier to use and better supported and documented via the Internet than ever before.

There is no shortage of talented, motivated, creative people with exactly the skills to create experiences and objects that will rival and SURPASS anything that Apple can dream up. That is the beauty of unfettered creativity. Whether we are talking about students, freelancers, or experienced professionals taking on new projects, the talent and the will exists.

What is lacking is a system to connect designers with engineers, outside the corporate/agency structure. Right now a team with an idea for software typically needs a budget of $20–50k before an agency will even give them the time of day. It is so much easier to just build the dang thing and not involve the flaky artists.

Right? Wrong.

The future doesn’t have to dominated by devices that become useless at the end of a two-year cycle, or are bricked based on electronic signals.

All we need is a way for artists and hackers to work together on non-corporate projects. All we need is a structure.

It wouldn’t take long. Five years at most.

Here’s how:

  1. Build a social platform where designers and programmers can come together and network. Some projects may be paid, but the emphasis should be on independent, seed stage, and non-corporate work.
  2. Don’t expect designers to “learn to code.” Don’t expect engineers to “learn to design.” The two disciplines are distinct, and represent different ways of thinking. Just as Babe Ruth could both hit and pitch, some designers can code, and some engineers can also design. But this is not the norm. Judging one professional on their fluency in a different discipline is about equivalent to judging my ability to write in French.
  3. Invest in legal resources for the open source community. Specifically, expand the Creative Commons license to permit group licenses and group projects, and allow an organization of unpaid volunteers to set specific guidelines on how it wishes its group creative output to be used.
  4. Create opportunities for designers and engineers to come together and brainstorm at hackerspaces, makerspaces, and conferences.
  5. Recruit designers and non-technical people to evaluate and test open source projects. Listen to their feedback, even when critical.
  6. Create efficient crowdfunding mechanisms to get out the word and fast-track projects that include designers as well as engineers.
  7. Listen.

Respect these principles, and you will have more than a revolution on your hands. You will have a Golden Age. You will have a new era of tools and devices that are designed with humanism, to solve real-world problems.

All it takes is being willing to step outside your comfort zone. All it takes is being willing to say that another mind might have something equal and opposite to add to a shared creation.

That’s how every great song was made. Different tracks, different instruments, different harmonies. If you don’t believe me, plug your damn headphones back in.