Beware the Garden of StevenS

The virtual utopia controlled by Steve Jobs will expand greatly, bringing even more of the world under the thumb of the Apple CEO. That's the most promising—and dangerous—development to emerge from Apple's big products rollout today.

Essentially, Apple announced that its longstanding Mac product line will become more like its newer iPad and iPhone product line. Most significantly, in the forthcoming "Lion" Mac operating system announced today, Apple will be locking down top tier applications on the Mac similar to how apps are locked down on the iPad and iPhone. Jobs announced a "Mac Apps Store" to mirror the App Store for iPhones and iPad. Just as on the original App Store, the Mac App Store will give 30 percent of sales to Apple and 70 percent to app creators. And like the original App Store, beset with accusations of censorship and controversies over the app approval process, the Mac App Store will be curated by Apple.

Only by submitting their applications to Apple's store, and by giving 30 percent of their receipts there to the company, will developers get to take advantage of two new features of the operating system. One, their apps will be allowed to use Apple's new "Launchpad," a tool for easily opening applications. Two, they will get to plug their apps into a centralized system for updating all apps to new versions with one click. In other words, it will be a lot easier to use apps you bought from the Apple-controlled Mac App Store than apps downloaded in the wild.

Beware the Garden of StevenS

Apple could have enabled its Launchpad and auto-update features for all applications, sold through the Apple Store or not. For example, an open system for updating applications has been in use for years on Ubuntu, a Linux based operating system. Ubuntu's "Apt" (Advanced Packaging Tool) lets users install, update and remove software of their choosing with a single command. There's a central list of apps curated by Ubuntu's maintainers, but users are free to add and install from other lists, as well.

But Apple seems to have made a very clear choice not to take the open route. The company is sharpening an important dichotomy that has emerged within Apple products, a dichotomy in which there's a first-class experience controlled by Apple with a heavy hand. Call this the Garden of Steven. Then there's a second-class experience that's open, a wilderness in which unsanctioned software, media and ideas are tolerated and contained.

The Garden of Steven is where iPhone and iPad apps live, and where the iTunes Store is located. It's a place that's clearly expanding; it's where the Mac App Store will open and where the Launchpad (below right) will live. It's a bubble that users and developers choose to enter, where a fairly high degree of censorship is expected and accepted. It's where Apple gets to tell hackers how to code and rock bands how to behave. "Freedom" means something different in the Garden of Steven: it's about freedom from porn and spyware, not freedom to freely express yourself or download whatever you like. It's a lot like Disneyland, go figure.

The Garden of Steven is not entirely a bad place: Setting aside the lamentable crackdowns on political cartoons and gay literature, some of the rules enforced by Jobs have been a boon to usability. When Apple sets standards for how apps look, behave, are installed and are updated, it provides a level of consistency that makes life a lot easier for novice computer users. Those types of users, by all accounts, tend to love the iPad.

Beware the Garden of StevenS

Then there's the wilderness. On the iPhone and iPad, you primarily get there by tapping the "Safari" icon and jumping on the web. On the Mac, you'll get there the same way, or by installing apps that don't come from the new Mac App Store. You'll be there every time you download some media from BitTorrent, install a tool to jailbreak your iPhone or watch a video that Jobs would consider naughty and even harmful to children.

With today's announcements, Apple is signaling clearly that it wants to grow the Garden of Steven — and thus its own ability to control what we download onto our computing devices. At one point, Jobs even made explicit the spread of genes from the locked down iPhone and iPad to the much more open Mac, asking what would happen if a MacBook and iPad "hooked up." (The answer, apparently, is the two new MacBook Air models Jobs unveiled today.)

The march of Steve Jobs' software utopia is already raising some alarms among tech godfathers. "Is this the end of the Mac as an open platform?" longtime Apple and Internet developer Dave Winer asked during Apple's presentation. Jobs had barely finished speaking before software developer Anil Dash published a call to arms urging programmers to quickly create an open alternative to the Mac App Store. "Don't waste time," he wrote. "Long, pointless conversations... won't help you in making an app store that actually gives you some leverage with Apple."

Ah, leverage. The growing power and prominence of Apple — and the growing brilliance of the company's products, to be sure — does indeed have people scrambling for leverage or anything else that will help them avoid getting left in the dust by the company's initiatives. It's not just happening among tech companies; the advertising and media businesses must increasingly pay heed to Apple as well. And when you see a bunch of kings frantically maneuvering to get out of the way, that's a pretty good sign there's an empire on the march. That's not an entirely bad thing, if you can avoid getting squashed.