David Heinemeier Hansson

January 26, 2024

We need a Right To Compute

The App Store dispute can be boiled down to one big question: Is the iPhone a computer or not? If it’s a computer, we ought to have the right to compute. Like consumers have won the right to repair. If it’s a computer, it ought to be yours, and you ought to have the right to install whatever software you should so choose.

If it’s not a computer, then what is it? A gaming console? An appliance? A toy? There’s a spectrum in those definitions where consumers perhaps wouldn’t expect the right to install software of their own choosing, even if there’s a “computer” somewhere inside it. And I suspect it’s that mental model that animates the Apple Stans on this issue. They want to escape from the freedom of owning a computer.

But I think most people, when it comes down to it, believe that their smartphone is indeed a real computer. And that after paying $1,000 for this computer, they should be able to install whatever software they should so choose. Without having to ask Apple or Google for permission.

That they should be able to have a direct relationship with companies like Adobe or Epic or Netflix or 37signals, which isn’t intermediated by some toll-booth operator telling them what’s allowed or asking for an outrageous cut. Just like they’ve been able to do with every modern personal computer since the dawn of computing.

Mac developers are rightfully worried that this golden era of computing is coming to an end, though. That Apple is signalling a future where every piece of software that runs on computers has to be approved by app store bureaucrats, busy protecting the business model of the platform. And I think they’re right to worry about this, so now is the time to enshrine this right to compute. While people still remember what it’s like to be free to install software of their own choice.

The irony here is that Apple has the best argument for why that freedom is perfectly compatible with a safe computing platform: The Mac. It’s has been an incredibly stable and secure platform for over twenty years now. Ever since it adopted Unix underpinnings, it’s had a fundamental solid reputation for being a safe, mainstream computing platform.

Apple promotes it as such all the time! Their ads aren’t cast with computer geeks and science nerds who have to constantly battle the forces of darkness on malware or scams. No, they’re full of regular people doing word processing, photo editing, movie watching, and project management. On their computer! Using software they would have installed from the internet!

That’s the fundamental paradox of Apple’s situation. In order to advance their scarecrow case for an iPhone you can install your own software on, they have to sully the reputation of their other computing platform. It’s a strategy tax applied as repetitional harm.

To counter this nonsense, we need a right to compute.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.