You are on page 1of 12

Digital Creativity

2011, Vol. 22, No. 3, pp. 148 159

Ubiquitous apps: politics

of openness in global
mobile cultures
Gerard Goggin
University of Sydney, Australia

Abstract There is more information available at our n-

Smartphones are a central element of mobile ubiquity,
gertips during a walk in the woods than in any
with mobile applications (apps) becoming especially computer system, yet people nd a walk among
important. This article discusses the concept of iPhone trees relaxing and computers frustrating.
apps, and other apps, as cultural platforms. Apps are Machines that t the human environment,
highly signicant for emerging cultures of mobile ubi- instead of forcing humans to enter theirs, will
quity, yet these platforms are constituted and controlled make using a computer as refreshing as
by major transnational global mobile media corpor- taking a walk in the woodsMark Weiser
ations. The article looks at the characteristics, con- (Weiser 1991).
straints and limits of apps as they have emerged from If the hardware is the brain and sinew of our
20082011, arguing that we need to carefully products, the software in them is their soul
examine the terms of openness as they are constituted
Steve Jobs (Apple, 2011a).
at the intersection of such mobile hardware, software
[O]ne of the most important shifts in the digital
and content. Finally, it offers a critique of apps,
suggesting it is time to reconceive our ideas about world has been the move from the wide-open
apps and mobile Internet generally. Web to semiclosed platforms [. . .] driven pri-
marily by the rise of the iPhone model of
Keywords: apps, smartphones, mobile media, open- mobile computing . . . As it moved from your
ness, mobile Internet desktop to your pocket, the nature of the Net
changed. The delirious chaos of the open Web
was an adolescent phase subsidized by indus-
trial giants groping their way in a new world.
Now theyre doing what industrialists do
bestnding choke points. And by the looks
of it, were loving itChris Anderson (Ander-
son and Wolff 2010).

1 Introduction
In 2011, mobile phone subscriber numbers passed
the six billion mark. Though the overall rate of dif-
fusion of the technology is slowing, use of mobile
broadband, mobile Internet, mobile media and

ISSN 1462-6268 # 2011 Taylor & Francis
Politics of openness in global mobile cultures

wireless technology devices continues to grow is an ideal that is difcult to obtain, indeed a

Digital Creativity, Vol. 22, No. 3

(International Telecommunications Union 2010). fantasy of sortsunderpinned by particular
This widespread diffusion of this family of tech- assumptions (Weiser 1991, Dourish 2004, Rogers
nologies means that mobile devices are a key infra- 2006). Technologies, especially those constituting
structure and setting for the contemporary growth the global mobile media infrastructure, are messy,
and salience of ubiquitous computing (Greeneld partial and contingent. They are a combination of
2006, Schuster 2007, Elliott and Kraemer 2008). the old, new, reused and repurposeda triumph
The intersection of mobile technologies and of making-do, accident, unintended consequence
ubiquitous computing is already resulting in pro- and resistance, as much as the remains of grand
found socio-cultural ramications. These particu- plans (Larkin 2008, Dourish and Bell 2011). So
lar technologies of mobilityat the intersection we are a long way off having cultures in which
of mobiles, Internet and computingpromise to information is actually ubiquitous. However, the
make possible the idea of cultures characterised assumptions shaping our concepts of ubiquitous
by, presuming, and grounded upon, ubiquitous information are certainly with us. A simple
information. This is strikingly the case when we example is email. Many of us remember the time,
consider the place of mobile technologies from the mid-1990s onwards, where email was
especially smartphonesin the notions of ubiqui- based on the POP systemin which the email
tous data featuring in discourses of cloud comput- client downloaded email from the service to ones
ing (Chee and Franklin 2010). There are literal and computer. To combat the difculty that, unless
technical coordinates of this conjuncture between one was vigilant about the settings, email was
smartphones and your data everywhere, made deleted from the server and held on one particular
visible by Apples iCloud announcement in June device, email services were developedusing
2011. Apples fully-edged foray into consumer- web-based, IMAP and Entourage systems, for
accessible cloud computing extends well beyond instancewhich always stored the email on the
its established Mobile Me portal-like data server, for a user to access on any device they
storage and applications service: wished and to leave in storage for as long as they
wished. Of course, various difculties ensued
This is the cloud the way it should be: automatic
from corporate policies that sought to ensure
and effortless. iCloud is seamlessly integrated
users deleted email or only stored on their compu-
into your apps, so you can access your content
ter (to save space), or connectivity problems. Thus,
on all your devices (
it is important to understand and critique the
positive and negative imaginaries of ubiquitous
iCloud is part of Apples iOS5 mobile phone oper- information because of the ideas about the world
ating system, rivalling Google Chrome OS and its they containsomething pointed out by Daniel
Chromebooks. In June 2011, Apple claimed that Pargman in his proposal that we need to ground
its iOS, used on iPhones, iPads and iPod touch, our thinking in a recognition of a world of limit-
was the dominant mobile operating system, with ation (Pargman 2011).
200 million users or 44% of the global market A fascinating feature of recent developments in
(Apple 2011a). mobile technologies and notions of ubiquity
As the iCloud reveals, rather like the idea of involves something that we might term a new cul-
ubiquitous computingubicompitself, such tural platform, namely, smartphone applications
emergent cultures of information are powerfully (apps)catalysed by the advent of Apples phe-
shaped by quite specic, particular social imagin- nomenally popular iPhone, apps and apps store.
aries (Taylor 2004), as much as they are by the Apps are a good example of twenty-rst-century
materialities through which they are constituted mobile computing delivering what ubicomps
(Galloway 2004, Ekman 2011). An obvious point great founding gure, Mark Weiser, suggested
made by many is that ubiquitous information they should:


Like the personal computer, ubiquitous com- the playground of apps remains tightly controlled
Digital Creativity, Vol. 22, No. 3

puting will enable nothing fundamentally by particular corporationssuch as Apple,

new, but by making everything faster and Google, Samsung, Nokia, and othersand the
easier to do, with less strain and mental gym- rules of the apps stores that each has created.
nastics, it will transform what is apparently While it is true that there are relatively low barriers
possible . . . But ease of use makes an enormous of entry for developing software that can be made
difference. When almost every object either available for free or at a price through apps store,
contains a computer or can have a tab attached the underlying structure of this cultural platform
to it, obtaining information will be trivial: is far from a free marketas it might be under-
Who made that dress? Are there any more in stood in relation to other media, communications,
the store? What was the name of the designer software and information technologies industries.
of that suit I liked last week? The computing Nor is it easily available for signicant non-
environment knows the suit you looked at for commercial uses.
a long time last week because it knows both
of your locations, and it can retroactively nd
the designers name even if it did not interest
you at the time (Weiser 1991, p. 100). 2 Mobile apps: a new cultural
In the environments in which many of us live in Software applications for cellular mobile devices
the minority world of the global north, we cer- have been available since for some years, part of a
tainly encounter many computers, some of which burgeoning eld of mobile data (Maitland et al.
talk to each otheror have tabs attached to 2002, Maitland et al. 2005, Steinbock 2005);
them, slowly slouching towards the Internet of popular computing software adapted for mobiles,
things. For hundreds of millions of people, smart- including business applications like Microsofts
phone apps now make obtaining all kinds of infor- Ofce Suite, or Adobes PDF readers, or entertain-
mation a relatively trivial affair. ment software such as games. In addition, new soft-
If this is the case, then the appearance of apps ware applications were developed for mobiles, the
at this time is important. Yet, thus far, we know most popular categories including short message
relatively little about apps as a whole; that is, service (SMS), mobile news, music, logos and pic-
what kind of technological system they constitute tures, and mobile banking applications. The appear-
as a cultural platform; and, in particular, what ance of multimedia mobile phonesespecially
kinds of activities, projects, aims, groups and indi- so-called smartphones, kin to other ubiquitous
viduals may access appsand upon what terms, smart technology (Kuniavsky 2010)had
and subject to what social, and power, relations increased the space, power and exibility on such
they may do so. These are basic cultural, political devices for software development. Thus, mobile
questions we ask of all our media systems. So the data had become an increasing part of mobile
point of this article is to raise the visibility of such design, production, marketing, consumption and
a problematic. public discussion since at least the late 1990s
To do so, the article focuses on a relatively (when the Japanese pioneered i-Mode). Smart-
narrow aspect of appsthough one with consider- phones, tablet computers and portable media
ably broader implications. I discuss and offer a cri- player devices such as iPod had also been con-
tique of the market forces holding the whip hand sidered and often incorporated into ubiquitous
on the structure of apps. Through a discussion of computing discussions (Kuniavsky 2010). Yet it
Apples apps in particular, my argument is is really only with the advent of Apple iPhone
twofold: rstly, that apps have constituted an apps that this aspect of mobile mediaindeed the
important new platform, or area, for cultural devel- full-edged entry of mobile computinghas
opment and innovation; however, that, secondly, come to fruition.

Politics of openness in global mobile cultures

Apples iPhone was introduced in January have also set up their own apps and apps store

Digital Creativity, Vol. 22, No. 3

2007. Since then, it has had a galvanising equivalents. Blackberry App World increased its
effect on the smartphone marketprovoking the share to 7.7% in 2010. Nokias Ovi Store was
development of competitor technologies such as the third-most popular in 2010, but has joined
Googles Android, RIMs precedence in Black- forces with Microsoft to combine the software
berry, Samsung Galaxy, Nokias various offerings, giants smartphone with Nokias Ovi branded
smartphones from the Taiwanese company HTC, content and apps (Screen Digest 2011, pp. 67,
and the various shanzai smartphones copied and 85). Finally, Googles Android Market more than
adapted in China (Shi 2011). tripled its share of mobile applications store
In late 2011, smartphones have become a fast- returns to claim 4.7% of the market in 2010set
growing technology in the mobile-phone saturated to increase further, given that sales of Android
countries and sufciently cashed-up user groups in are now outstripping its iPhone rival.
the global north (west and east alike). Smartphone There now exists a bewildering array of apps
technology is now also making inroads into the available across a number of apps stores and
global south (Goggin 2011). Note how Apples handset types. These apps themselves have
iPhone accounted for roughly 100 millionor wrought a metamorphosis in our notion of
one-thirdof the 300 million-odd smartphones mobile phones and media. An app can make it
shipped in 2010 (Screen Digest 2011, p. 67). possible to imagine and do things with a mobile
Apple launched its apps in July 2008, at the phone that were previously never associated with
same time that the iPhone 3 went on sale. The the technology. A denitive list would be very
development was relatively slow in the rst few long indeed, but apps discussed in the scholarly lit-
months, and apps were not something that Apple erature that take the mobile device well beyond its
heavily promoted (there are no archived press former identity as a phone include: travel apps;
releases about apps during this period, for virtual stethoscope; bowling ball; meditation
instancecompared to various releases concern- device; brain training game; seismic sensors;
ing the iPhone). What quickened the growth of library discovery tool; obesity prevention; tools
apps was Apple opening up apps development to for surgeons; steganography (hiding data within
third-party developers. This occurred when data); data interdiction by law enforcement; and
Apple released its Software Development Kit many others. Some apps clearly have their prove-
(SDK) on 6 March 2009. Simultaneously Apple nance in other media forms. There are apps that
previewed its new apps store, with endorsements originate as software developed for other compu-
from leading developers of applications for small ter platforms. There are books, video, lm or mul-
business, games, mobiles and blogging (Apple timedia that are adapted as apps. Then there are
2009). At the rst anniversary of apps in July other media forms, such as the Internet, recon-
2008, Apple claimed that 1.5 billion apps had ceived for mobile apps platformssuch as the
been downloaded, and by November 2009 that many popular social media apps. Or there are
more than 100,000 apps were available (Apple apps that are inspired by the affordances of the
2011c). By January 2011, Apple was celebrating iPhone or iPadthe many retro photography
the 10 billionth download by the then estimated apps (Hipstamatic, Instagram, Pocketbooth, and
160 million iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad users so on), games that use the accelerometer sensing
worldwideand the availability of some technology (such as the bowling or snowboarding
350,000 apps on its store (Apple 2011b). games), mapping and location technologies (that
Thus, in a brief three years since its inception, can rely on Apples controversial logging of
Apples apps have created an impressive new area location coordinates of their devices). Quite a
of relatively easy to download and use mobile soft- few of these apps involve domesticating the smart-
ware. While public attention and user take-up has phone via remediation, or extending the other
centred on Apples apps, its various competitors media through apps capacity for hybridisation


of media and cultural forms (something apps share we still do not know very much about how
Digital Creativity, Vol. 22, No. 3

with mobile Internet generally). mobile innovation works in the particular, if not
A key affordance of apps is their ubiquity in the peculiar, public and private spaces that smart-
lives of their users. Depending on licence con- phone apps represent. While innovation is not
ditions, once downloaded an app is available the prime focus of this article, it is useful to
whenever the users wish to avail themselves of briey elaborate on this pointbefore proceeding
it. This deepens the personal and portable with the main argument.
nature of the mobile communication device (Ito Both mobiles and the Internet have been of
et al. 2005), already established as intimate tech- keen interest for their contribution to contempor-
nology that users take with them whenever they ary rethinking of innovation as decentralised,
go, carry or wear close to the body, and place user-driven and catalysed by digital networked
nearby, even in sleep or repose. Unlike the early technology (Hippel 2005, Anheier et al. 2010,
visions of ubiquitous computing, however, it is Brynjolfsson and Saunders 2010, Pascal Le
not so much that apps are invisible and so play Masson et al. 2010, Stoneman 2010). The Internet
a calm role in the life of the user (though this and mobiles have been studied themselves for
would apply to many). Rather, with various new insights to the kind of innovation models and
classes of apps, aspects of everyday life, bodies, systems these technologies represent (Van Sche-
effects and identities are rendered much more wick 2010, Lemstra et al. 2011). The studies
visible, calculable and governable. This is what underscore the obvious sense in which mobiles
is remarkable about the passion users have for have emerged from more conventional structures
lifestyle apps. When I began riding to work, and conditions of innovation organised through
my cycling enthusiast neighbours urged me to large multinational corporations, and so much
download and use the iMapMy Ride app, so I contemporary focus has been on the Internet,
would always be able to reckon how far and fast especially for its ability to support new models
I had ridden. Food consumption apps allow the of user-driven innovation.
care of the self represented in diet regimes, nutri- Though it was proposed in 2005, Sawhney and
tion advice and cultural technologies such as Lees (2005) handy notion of arenas of inno-
diaries to be powerfully recongured. For vation remains useful for considering the case
instance, Diet & Food Tracker is a free app of appsespecially as updated by Sawhney in a
offered by, the worlds most 2009 paper on the iPhone (Sawhney 2009).
popular diet and tness site, which keeps tally What is especially pertinent about this model is
of the calories eaten and burned each day, food evident in Sawhneys 2009 attempt to use it to
details and videos of suggested exercises. think about the way that mobile phones were
Without a more systematic study and concep- moving from a closed system architecture to an
tualisation, it is difcult to inventory and map open one, in a context where innovation is occur-
the Apple apps universe and provide a deeper tax- ring between the Internet and mobiles. He asks:
onomy and analysis. However, there is at least
If an arena of innovation supported by hand-
anecdotal evidence to suggest that opening the
held devices were indeed to emerge, what
apps store to third-party development has been a
would be its relationship to the arena of inno-
boon for software innovation on mobile plat-
vation supported by the Internet? Would it be
formsindeed it can be seen as a highly signi-
an extension of the Internet or would it be
cant development in software, especially in
different? What innovations will arise? Which
various areas of media (games, news, books,
way will they ow? (Sawhney 2009, p. 114).
video, Internet), as well as a wide range of other
social domain (health, to single out but one The case of apps has emerged since Sawhney
leading area). Yet, despite its burgeoning signi- raised these questions. We could indeed see
cance and adoption across many domains of life, apps as an arena of innovation, yet this is but

Politics of openness in global mobile cultures

one of the many available models from the carrier on the public Internet (that is, outside the

Digital Creativity, Vol. 22, No. 3

teeming literature that could be used to theorise carrier portals). However, such software then
iPhone as a platform for innovation. For the pur- needed to be installed on the mobile phone,
poses of my discussion, I wish to leave innovation which was not so easy to do. Apples apps store,
per se, in order to focus on the quality of openness, once opened to developers, meant that they
which Sawhney nominates as a cardinal quality. needed to have their software accepted by one
Sawhney provides an important, early discussion entity, at better terms than had generally prevailed
of emerging issues in openness, contrasting the with the mobile carriers. Then, via apps store and
relatively closed platform bequeathed by mobile iTunes, apps could be easily searched, purchased
cellular telecommunications c. 1980 2007 with and installed.
efforts by amateur, open source mobile, home Thus, Apple apps provided a lucrative platform
brew initiatives which he feels are ideal for some software developers to launch fabulously
(Sawhney 2009, p. 113). In doing so, he highlights successful products. A good example is Angry
a deep structural issue, which especially comes to Birds, developed by the Finnish mobile company
the fore in the case of iPhone apps, but also the Rovio Mobile, founded in 2003. Released in
other apps platforms. This is an issue that goes 2009, Angry Birds rose to success the following
directly to a very serious shortcoming in the year. By mid-2011, Angry Birds was the number
capacity of apps to support transformative cultures one iPhone app in over 30 countries across the
of mobile ubiquity. Americas, Asia-Pacic, and Middle East. It was
The iPhone apps platform is premised for the also the most popular game on Nokias Ovi
most part on the dominant interests of commercial store, and was migrating to the web for the rst
industrywith apps stores opening up a new timereleased as a beta in Googles Chrome
market in the interstices of mobile networks Web Store. While games and entertainment domi-
still heavily controlled by dominant transnational nate the top paid apps, there are many other paid
mobile carriers in alliance with handset vendors, apps also in less traditional areas, such as health,
and new intermediaries, creating tightly coordi- productivity, lifestyle and travel. As well as paid
nated value chains (or networks) (Goggin 2011). apps, the iPhone is an available platform for
So when Apple launched the iPhone it was able making available and distributing free apps.
to, rstly, open a breach in the dam of cellular While lists of all-time top free apps are now domi-
mobile control. It did so initially via tightly cong- nated by Facebook, Google Mobile, Skype and
ured, exclusive deals with a dominant provider in a other Internet program apps available on mobile,
marketfor example, with AT & T in the US. there are many other kinds of free apps too.
Handsets were locked to this carriers network, Some are forms of advertising or catalogues, but
and difcult to unlock (jail-break) otherwise others cover a range of individual or organisations
(Maun 2008). In establishing this toe-hold in offering appsfrom public transport companies
markets around the world, the popularity of its and broadcasters to activist and political organis-
iPhone productbuilt on the back of its existing ations. Like iTunes, which has become a broad-
reputationmeant that it was able to exact surpris- casting platform for universities to offer podcasts
ingly good deals from mobile carriers for access to of talks, or Facebook, which fast became an indis-
and use of their networks. The introduction of its pensable social media conduit for all sorts of
apps store meant that it was able to break the institutions, Apples apps store has become a
vice-like grip that carriers had held on mobile soft- commercially owned and controlled platform
ware. Previously, developers and content provi- which is used by a range of both commercial and
ders needed to make deals with the carriers to be non-commercial providers.
able to offer the software to the carriers customers. Thus it certainly is the case that iPhone
Some customers were prepared to download soft- apps have offered a platform for a ourishing
ware from websites outside the control of the of mobile software, across commercial and


non-commercial areas. However, while the plat- source values by Google and other large corpor-
Digital Creativity, Vol. 22, No. 3

form has become an important part of public ations. However, there has been even less study,
culture, it is still rmly in the gift of Apple. At or indeed scrutiny, of the openness of Blackberry,
the most general level, the Apples smartphone Nokias Ovi and other apps stores than there has of
and tablet system is highly horizontally and verti- Apple and Googles apps platforms. A conven-
cally integrated (Shi 2011), bearing out most tional economic and competition issue raised by
aspects of Manuel Castellss comprehensive theor- the various apps stores is the issue of the lack of
isation of the select group of corporations that hold connection and portability among these different
great power in the digital age (Castells 2009). arenas (as well as the sometimes incompatible
Apple seeks to bind consumers to its handset characteristics of different handset systems). Of
(iPhone, iPad, iPod touch); which to do basic course, this is not an unprecedented issue when
things such as purchase and upload software or it comes to technology, as there are often divergent
digital media (music) must be used in conjunction hardware and technological systems with quite
with its digital management and rights system different standards (or diverse implementations
(iTunes); which in turn only offers software of these systems). Many apps developers are
appsapproved by Apple, or otherwise these quite adroit in designing and offering their soft-
cannot be distributed via the apps store. ware pluralistically, where possible, by portable
The iPhone and iTunes have been the subject code across platforms (Hook 2005). However,
of much criticism regarding their enactment of the issue of the terms of access and use of these
restrictive regimes of intellectual property and various apps platforms has been little discussed.
user control. For its part, the iPhones strict ofcial Even if there were a more transparent approach
controls were immediately met on launch by the various corporations to how they set up,
indeed, before the launch in each countrywith grant access to, price and regulate their apps plat-
a wave of user modication, hacking and wide- forms, there still remains the overarching issue that
spread sharing of code and instructions on how commercial forces of an all too conventional
to jail-break devices. Yet Apples apps have not economic kind shape these important new apps
received the same degree of attention, or even platforms. All in all, I contend that apps now func-
levels of resistance (at least from consumers in tion as a strategically signicant cultural platform
the west). For example, we still know little about for mobiles as an everyday technologyand the
the apps that Apple refuses to allow to use its plat- nature and politics of this infrastructure is some-
formsomething the corporation easily regulates thing that needs further discussion (Goriunova
through its own rules and controls. From time to 2011a, 2011b).
time a case comes to noticemore often than
not, when there is outcry because some users
nd an app offensive and Apple has not banned 3 Critique of apps
it. This occurred, for instance, in the famous In theorising apps, I would suggest that these new
Baby Shaker app case, where users shake their media ecologies have created new openness and
device to stop a baby cryingchanging the opportunities in mobile cultural platforms. Such
image of an unhappy baby to a calm one potentialities have been the result of the entrance
(Choney 2009). of computer and Internet production, user cultures
It can fairly contended that other apps plat- and movement (such as open source) into mobile
forms may offer more generous terms of access media. In addition, apps have evidently rep-
and approval. Android Market, for instance, resented the eforescence of small, micro-enter-
launched with a user-rating system. Google also prises and individuals associated with software
prides itself on its open source approach to development industries, for whom the platform
design of its operating system, though there is has allowed distribution of their wares where
clearly a politics to this championing of the open otherwise the political economy of software and

Politics of openness in global mobile cultures

computing industries (Pattison 2007)not to it is contrasted with the ideal possibilities and

Digital Creativity, Vol. 22, No. 3

mention mobile telecommunications industries cultural visions associated with dominant Internet
(Goggin 2011)has made this difcult. cultures. The Internet is assumed to be normatively
Arguably, then, we can regard apps as an superior to mobile platforms and architectures on a
important new cultural platform for mobiles. Yet, number of levelsespecially from the perspective
if this is the case, there needs to be scrutiny of of advocates of free and open software, and also
the terms upon which culture circulates in the those of the commons. The decentralised nature
apps arena, what kinds of power relations exist of the Internet means that innovation can very
and what kinds of freedom are permitted. Follow- much come from the edges, with individual users
ing the prompt of Sawhney, but also the many establishing servers, running applications, writing
bloggers, fans and pundits disgruntled with the and offering software, publishing, circulating and
design of Apples iPhone and apps, it is certainly downloading material. In contrast, it is difcult
arguable that in actuality the reality of apps is but for an individual or small group to set up its own
a caricature of what might be possibleand mobile phone transmitter and network, or even
indeed is requiredin this historical phase of use the mobile phone network to circulate and
social transformation and cultural development broadcast messages, images, video and other
under mobile mediation. material as the Internet easily can. True, there are
Thus far there had been little attention paid to a great examples of mobiles being used in quite dis-
the terms upon which such openness in apps pla- tinctive ways for thiswith many celebrated cases
forms is conceived and conferred by Apple, of text messaging being used in protest, dissent and
Nokia, Blackberry and others. Research and as a tool for democracy from the Philippines to
public debate has tended to focus upon the Inter- China and India and, more recently, in the 2010
net, where theorisation of this new medium as a 2011 Arab Spring of uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt,
cultural platform is relatively advanced. When it Yemen, Syria and Libya. Yet much of this potential
comes to mobile media, there has been a lack of has come from the articulation of the affordances of
developed work and wider understanding, in part mobile devices with those of the Internet, for
because of the historically specialised realm of tel- example, recording video with a mobile phone,
ecommunications technology and media policy and uploading it to YouTube.
from which mobiles developed. There have cer- There is a short step from such accounts of the
tainly been important critiques of the controls imbrication of mobile and Internet cultures to
adopted by Apple with its iPhone. An early and assuming that the Internet is the generative cultural
important critique was that of Jonathan Zittrain and media platform. This is a move that I feel
(Zittrain 2008). Since then, many everyday occurs in the important work of Jonathan Zittrain
iPhone hackers and jail-breakers, as well as (2008), but also in other inuential theories of
legal scholars (Haubenreich 2008), have railed sharing economies such that of Yochai Benkler
against tethered devices and, to a lesser extent, (Benkler 2006), who, for instance, champions the
the constraints of apps stores. More recently wireless commons against mobile media. Rather
Chris Anderson has broadened such arguments than exploring the potential of mobile media to
to propose that the nature of the Internet itself in offer a cultural platform that would unlock the
changingas represented in appsand that this wealth of networks he theorises, Benkler argues
is not necessarily a bad thing (Anderson and for the aggregrative action of wireless (Wi-Fi and
Wolff 2010). other wireless Internet) technologies, which can
Something hampering our analysis and discus- be assembled by users to form networks. These
sion of apps is a conceptual blockage in understand- are indeed important critiques of tendencies in
ing these platformsespecially when it comes to smartphones and apps as a platform. Yet they still
how they operate as new circuits for culture. often rest on problematic assumptions about the
When the politics of openness of apps is discussed, models underlying both the Internet and mobiles.


As it is emerging, mobile Internet, including property holders of dominant ICT and media
Digital Creativity, Vol. 22, No. 3

apps, amounts to a powerful platform for the corporations, have truly enabled an egalitar-
action and movement of culture. Moreover, new ian space in China, where knowledge can be
forms of collaboration, qualitatively different spread, for instance, to a rural middle school
from what they were in the past, are being devel- that cannot afford an ofcial version of MS
oped at the intersections of mobiles and Internet Ofce and where fun can light up migrant
with new social forms. Digital content is being workers temporary dorms who do not have
developed in exciting new directions, with the money for a night out at the theater (Shi,
people undertaking new kinds of activities, rep- 2011, p. 13).
resentations and instigating new kinds of value.
In this light, the key problem bound up with the China is perhaps the most signicant, yet still
politics of openness in apps is to push the bound- unacknowledged case of user resistance of the
aries of inclusiveness in apps, and how to harness ofcial iPhone apps system, certainly compared
the potential of such possibilities. to the celebration of iPhone hacking and modi-
A starting point for this is a radical rethinking cation in Western countries, especially the US.
and reformulation of media, based on the kinds As such, it is a highly signicant sign of the
of uses of mobile Internet emerging from a efforts of users to fashion the cultural platform of
diverse range of locations around the world. mobile media after their own desires, warranting
What is evident in an early study of the Chinese Shis argument that unlocked, jailbroken, and
iPhone experience, for instance, is that apps are unofcial iPhones can offer users a democratic
not so popular or applicable in that country mobile platform open to free software and enter-
because of the role that the informal economy tainment (Shi 2011, p. 13).
plays (Shi 2011). Yu Shi argues that: There is a body of research on the social
shaping of technology, and now the everyday
The iPhone and its global distribution symbo- innovation of users, but we can point in particular
lizes Apples strategies to control not only the to a well-established, cultural-specic, informal
market of the phone itself but also its software economy of mobile phone practices to which the
development environment, wireless services, Chinese case contributes. An obvious example is
and the information and entertainment avail- the rich, if recent, heritage of user customisation
able to its users. Such strategies encounter of phones, encouraged by the design of 2G
various obstacles in the Chinese market mobiles, that Larissa Hjorth documents playing
(Shi 2011, p. 2). an inuential role in gender and culture in the
Asia-Pacic region (Hjorth 2009). Research is
Shi describes how the grey market saw the smug-
gling and unlocking of an estimated one million only now emerging on the relationships, or lack
iPhones before they had been ofcially launched thereof, between the apps ecology and mod
ecology (that is, centring on modding, or modi-
in China. Once the iPhones were activated, then
the informal software economy swung into cation)a distinction discussed by Alison
action. According to Shi, the characteristics of Powell in her important work on open mobile plat-
forms (Powell 2011).
this indigenous mobile culture that sustains the
bottom-up resistance is that Chinese digital consu- In conclusion, I propose a critical approach
mers have relied on an open-source environment where the notion of openness is looked at from
diverse perspectives when it comes to apps.
of software and entertainment (Shi 2011, p. 13).
Shi suggests that: There is an urgent need for such critique because
smartphones, and apps especially, have become a
Open-source, sometimes pirated, software central element of mobile ubiquity. As apps, and
applications and media materials, although the software and hardware systems in which
illegal from the perspective of the intellectual they are embedded, articulate directly into cloud

Politics of openness in global mobile cultures

computing, and other emergent technology direc- com/pr/library/2008/03/12iphone.html [Accessed 31

Digital Creativity, Vol. 22, No. 3

tions, there is great portent to such research, as May 2011].
Dourish and Bell point out: Apple, 2011a. Apple special event: Steve Job WWDC
2011 keynote [online]. Available from: http://
[T]he ways in which the Internet has con-
nected mobile devices to new streams of event/ [Accessed 15 June 2011].
content has created new experiences and also Apple, 2011b. Apples app store downloads top 10
new patterns of use and nonuse. It is thus billion [online]. Apple. Available from: http://
increasingly clear that infrastructure, the
mechanisms by which connectivity and [Accessed 31 May 2011].
content are delivered, are also implicated in Apple, 2011c. iPod+iTunes timeline [online]. Apple.
ubicomp. More attention needs to be paid to Available from:
how these operate and are delivered, billed, ipodhistory/ [Accessed 30 May 2011].
and regulated; and to the ways they routinely Benkler, Y., 2006. The wealth of networks: how social
fall, are thwarted, subverted, hacked, and production transforms markets and freedom. New
repurposed; and, perhaps most importantly, Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
to the ways in which they are imagined Brynjolfsson, E. and Saunders, A., 2010. Wired for
(Dourish and Bell 2011). innovation: how information technology is reshap-
ing the economy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Thus, we need to study and debate the terms upon Castells, M., 2009. Communication power. Oxford and
which openness has been conceived in apps plat- New York: Oxford University Press.
forms thus far. We also need to acknowledge the Chee, B.J.S. and Franklin, C. Jr, 2010. Cloud comput-
limits of notions of openness ported over from ing: technologies and strategies of the ubiquitous
Internet cultural debates, such as the commons. data center. New York: CRC.
Finally, we need to greatly remodel our under- Choney, S., 2009. Baby Shaker app pulled from iPhone
standing of what the moving media platforms store: child welfare groups upset by program that
that appsor, really, software-based cultures for makes light of deadly problem. Available from: http://
mobilesrepresent, and might become, if we
can make them a transformational force. and_science-wireless/t/baby-shaker-app-pulled-iphone-
store/ [Accessed 31 May 2011].
Dourish, P., 2004. What we talk about when we talk
Acknowledgements about context. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing,
8 (1), 1930.
My thanks to Ulrik Ekman and Lily Daz-Kommonen
for their helpful comments on an early version of Dourish, P. and Bell, G., 2011. Divining a digital future:
this article. mess and mythology in ubiquitous computing. Cam-
bridge, MA: MIT Press.
Ekman, U., 2011. Throughout: art and culture emerging
References with ubiquitous computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Anderson, C. and Wolff, M., 2010. The Web is dead. Press.
Long live the Internet. Wired Magazine, 17 Elliott, M.S. and Kraemer, K.L., eds., 2008. Computer-
August. Available from: ization movements and technology diffusion: from
magazine/2010/08/ff_webrip/all/l. mainframes to ubiquitous computing. Medford, NJ:
Anheier, H., Yudhishthir, Raj Isar, and Waterman, C., Information Today.
2010. H. Anheier and R.I. Yudhishthir, eds. Cultural Galloway, A., 2004. Intimations of everyday life: ubi-
expression, creativity and innovation. Los Angeles, quitous computing and the city. Cultural Studies,
CA, and London: Sage. 18 (23), 384408.
Apple, 2009. iPhone SDK downloads top 100,000 Goggin, G., 2011. Global mobile media. New York:
[online]. Apple. Available from: Routledge.


Goriunova, O., 2011a. Art platforms and cultural pro- Pargman, D., 2011. Ubiquitous information in a world of
Digital Creativity, Vol. 22, No. 3

duction on the Internet. New York: Routledge. limitations. Paper presented at Mobile ubiquity
Goriunova, O., 2011b. Autocreativity and organisational effects: communication, gaming, and innovation,
aesthetics in art platforms. Fibreculture Journal, 17. 2021 January, School of Art and Design, Aalto
Available from: http://seventeen.breculturejournal. University.
org/fcj-115-autocreativity-and-organisational-aesthe Pascal, Le Masson, Weil, B., and Hatchuel, A., 2010.
tics-in-art-platforms/. Strategic management of innovation and design.
Greeneld, A., 2006. Everywhere: the dawning age of New York: Cambridge University Press.
ubiquitous computing. Berkeley, CA: New Riders. Pattison, H., 2007. Innovation and diffusion of
software technology: mapping strategies. Oxford:
Haubenreich, J., 2008. The iPhone and the DMCA:
locking the hands of consumers. Vanderbilt Law Elsevier.
Review, 61, 15071553. Powell, A., 2011. The mod ecology and the app
Hippel, E.V., 2005. Democratizing innovation. Cam- ecology [online]. Available from: http://
bridge, MA: MIT Press. [Accessed 12 June 2011].

Hjorth, L., 2009. Mobile media in the Asia Pacic: Rogers, Y., 2006. Moving on from Weisers vision of
gender and the art of being mobile. London and calm computing: engaging ubicomp experiences.
Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 2006 (4206),
New York: Routledge.
Hook, B., 2005. Write portable code: an introduction to
Sawhney, H., 2009. Innovations at the edge: the impact
developing software for multiple platforms.
San Francisco, CA: No Starch Press. of mobile technologies on the character of the Inter-
net. In: G. Goggin and L. Hjorth, eds. Mobile tech-
International Telecommunications Union, 2010. The nologies: from telecommunications to media.
world in 2010: ICT facts and gures [online]. Avail- New York: Routledge, 105117.
able from:
Sawhney, H. and Lee, S., 2005. Arenas of innovation:
FactsFigures2010.pdf [Accessed 30 May 2011].
understanding new congurational potentialities of
Ito, M., Okabe, D. and Matsuda, M., eds., 2005. Per- communication technologies. Media, Culture and
sonal, portable, pedestrian: mobile phones in Japa- Society, 27 (3), 391414.
nese life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Schuster, A.J., ed., 2007. Intelligent computing every-
Kuniavsky, M., 2010. Smart things: ubiquitous comput- where. London: Springer.
ing user experience design. Amsterdam and Boston,
MA: Morgan Kaufmann. Screen Digest, 2011. Global media intelligence.
London: Screen Digest (March).
Larkin, B., 2008. Signal and noise: media, infrastruc-
ture and urban culture in Nigeria. Durham, NC: Shi, Y., 2011. iPhones in China: the contradictory stories
of media-ICT globalization in the era of media
Duke University Press.
convergence and corporate synergy. Journal of
Lemstra, W., Hayes, V. and Groenewegen, J., eds., 2011. Communication Inquiry, 35 (2), 134156.
The innovation journey of Wi-Fi: the road to global
success. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Steinbock, D., 2005. Mobile marketing: the making of
services worldwide mobile. London: Kogan Page.
Maitland, C.F., Bauer, J.M., and Westerveld, R., 2002.
Stoneman, P., 2010. Soft innovation: economics,
The European market for mobile data: evolving
product aesthetics, and the creative industries.
value chains and industry structures. Telecommuni-
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
cations Policy, 26, 485504.
Taylor, C., 2004. Modern social imaginaries. Durham,
Maitland, C.F., van de Kar, E.A.M., de Montalvo, U.W., NC: Duke University Press.
and Bouwman, H., 2005. Mobile information and
entertainment services: business models and Van Schewick, B., 2010. Internet architecture and
service networks. International Journal of Manage- innovation. Cambridge: MA: MIT Press.
ment and Decision Making, 6, 4764. Weiser, M., 1991. The computer for the twenty-rst
Maun, T.J., 2008. iHack, therefore iBrick: cellular contract century. Scientic American, 265 (3), 94100.
law, the Apple iPhone, and Apples extraordinary Zittrain, J., 2008. The future of the internet and how to
remedy for breach. Wisconsin Law Review, 4, 747793. stop it. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Politics of openness in global mobile cultures

Gerard Goggin is Professor of Media and Com- Mobile Global Mobile Media (2011), Internatio-

Digital Creativity, Vol. 22, No. 3

munications in the Department of Media and nalizing Internet Studies (2009), Mobile Techno-
Communications, the University of Sydney. His logies: From Telecommunications to Media
books include New Technologies and the Media (2009), Cell Phone Culture (2006), and Digital
(2012), Mobile Technology and Place (2012), Disability (2003).