The New Economy Hack: Turning Consumers into Producers

by Doc Searls

Last year, in his annual Macworld keynote, Steve Jobs made a big deal about open source. He paced in front of a giant screen that said "Open Source: We think it's great", and he backed the statement by announcing a new Apple browser based on the same KHTML rendering engine as KDE's Konqueror.

I wrote the story up in Surprise: Apple's New Browser is a Sister to Conqueror. It might not have been that huge a deal, but I did expect to see some follow-up news in the next Macworld keynote. After all, Apple had been talking up open source since it announced the BSD-based OS X before the turn of the millennium.

But there was nothing. Jobs talked up UNIX a bit and said that a new RAID product was certified for varieties of Linux; but that was it. The latest Konqueror News is what happened here a year ago.

On the show floor, I went looking for the Darwin folks. Darwin is OS X's BSD-derived base and has its own development community. Some of the Darwin folks at Apple had come over from the Linux world, Brian Croll and others from Eazel, for example. "Where are they?" I asked. One guy told me they were over in the far corner of the other hall, but I couldn't find anything there. Another guy told me Apple assigned the Darwin subject to some other event, perhaps its WorldWide Developer Conference, BSDcon or O'Reilly's OS X Conference. Another guy told me this Macworld had been refocused as a "users" conference, and Darwin and open source were too off-topic.

Sure enough, I couldn't even find mentions of Darwin or open source among any of the breakout sessions. (Maybe they were there and I missed them; still, the point is the same.) That's a far cry from three years ago, when a session on Yellow Dog Linux packed one room while nearby Darwin sessions spilled into the halls.

This all surprised me, because at ApacheCon in November, at least half the hackers there--most of them serious Linux jocks--were using Apple OS X laptops. I figured I'd see some hacker-oriented marketing by Apple at Macworld too, but it didn't happen.

There were plenty of Linux hackers at Macworld anyway. For example, I had a great time getting a rundown from Rael Dornfest on what he's doing with Blosxom, the open-source blogging system that has grown an active and convivial development community. It seemed to benefit from what Linus talked about on the last Geek Cruise: "people who don't flame and are calm and rational--and have good taste". Blosxom clearly has some of those folks hanging around. I could see it in some of the plugins Rael showed me, which were useful and fun. It also blew my mind when Rael said Blosxom is only 200 lines of Perl; right now he's working on getting that down to 150. Most Blosxom blogs run on Linux, he added.

Rael works for O'Reilly, which filled the role of Open Source community nexus on the show floor. It's booth--more like a pavilion--was packed.

So, without some kind of overt open-source story to follow, I found myself looking for insights about a market ecology that takes open source and its developers so completely for granted. And I got what I think is a big one.

The first clue came when Steve Jobs dropped a line about how much he and Apple "love music". Other clues came when he talked about the iTunes music store, which clearly is challenging the established way of doing things in the music industry. Still more clues came when he showed off enhancements to iDVD, which makes producing DVDs exceptionally easy. But the picture finally became clear when he spent an almost unbearably long time showing off a new application called GarageBand, "an anytime, anywhere recording studio packed with hundreds of instruments and a recording engineer or two for good measure". For the first time I saw that this isn't simply a technical or marketing hack--it's an economic one.

It's easy to say that what Apple's doing here is about marketing. But it's not, even though clever marketing is involved. See, marketing is about influencing markets. It's about spin. In the mass-market millieu where Apple lives, it's about maintaining the fully saturated Matrix-like habitat we call Consumer Culture. That culture was built by those who own and control the means of production. So, what we call "consumer electronics" is really producer electronics. It isn't about what you and I invent and contribute to the marketplace. It's about what Sony and Panasonic and Nikon and Canon produce and distribute through retailers for us, the mass market, to consume constantly. It's producerism, really. As a label, "consumerism" is a red herring. Talking about "consumerism" takes the conversation off into victimville, where the poor consumer needs to get better stuff and less abuse from the big bad producer.

Apple is giving consumers tools that make them producers. This practice radically transform both the marketplace and the economy that thrives on it.

Ignore for a minute that Apple's stuff is closed-source, that it has any kind of technical or market-category agenda. Instead, look at what it does to supply and demand, production and consumption. It turns consumers into producers. It changes the marketplace by flooding it with new producers, new products and demand for new means of distribution.

Want to see results? Check out Bush in 30 Seconds, by, the left-wing, grass-roots issue advocacy organization. These are first-rate TV ads produced mostly by amateurs, in a short period of time. Regardless of your politics, you have to agree that they're equal in quality to anything put out by a high-priced agency or production house.

We're seeing the same thing happening in journalism, with weblogs like those powered by Rael's Blosxom, and the music business, with Magnatune, subject of a big piece in this month's Linux Journal). Soon we'll see it in movies. How long before some low-budget, high-quality movie becomes a huge hit on DVD without any help from Hollywood? How long before Apple starts a movie store? How long before Disney buys Pixar, like Apple bought NeXT, and Steve Jobs takes over Disney? (Trust me, it's a good bet.) Then what?

So there we are: consumers become producers. Now set that aside the way Linus does when he says "That's user space. I don't do user space." Instead look up one level of economic abstraction, to supply and demand. This is where we find the Linux economy hack. Because Linux is something that happened when demand started to supply itself.

Linux is a demand-side movement that recently has been joined by high-profile suppliers, all of which adopted Linux in compliance with a market that independently developed and supplied its own operating system, on highly agreeable terms. As a movement led by resourceful experts who actually do the hard work, Linux is very much like what happened to the building trade in the 1800s, when carpenters adopted stud & joist frame ("balloon") construction, which they've been improving ever since. (Read more about that here.)

This is very different from what Apple and others are doing to convert consumers into producers, but it's still related. It's still part of a Net-enabled shift in power. I've said before this is a shift from supply to demand. But it's better described as a shift of power within supply from the few to the many.

The Mac World (trade show included, pun intended) is still an old-fashioned vendor-built environment--one of the last of its type, you might say. But it also is adapting to a larger ecosystem in which demand supplies its own generic infrastructural building materials, supported by a culture that values sharing and disclosure more than hoarding and secrecy. Even if Apple isn't plugging Darwin right now, the fact that Darwin is UNIX speaks volumes about technology and market ecosystems that Apple understands in ways that other old fashioned companies--notably Microsoft--still don't.

What Apple's doing with "i" apps like GarageBand isn't about the computer industry; it's about the entertainment industry. That industry lately has become vigilant about threats from its customers, which it still thinks of as consumers. Instead it should be watching how Apple transforms those consumers into producers. Because the next challenge will be finding ways to turn those producers into partners. The old gig is up. They'll never be just "consumers" again.

My next stop is CES, the Consumer Electronics Show. Apple won't be there, but Linux will--in approximately everything. I'll let you know how it goes.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. His monthly magazine column is Linux For Suits, and his bi-weekly newsletter is Suitwatch.

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