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"Always On" Is Surprisingly Good
March 15, 2012 - 8:30pm

Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime Future--and Locked Us In by Brian X. Chen

Always On is one of those books that I flirted with buying (downloading?) for a few months. Up until last week I could never convince myself to pull the trigger (add to the cart?).  

The book seemed to have a few things going against it:

  • Do we really need a whole book about the iPhone?
  • Doesn't Apple get enough ink?
  • Should we really be spending our valuable reading time obsessing about a smart phone?
  • Isn't this book already out-of-date (after 9 months), with the coming of the iPhone 4 and the introduction of Siri?
  • And doesn't Apple get enough ink? (So important I had to list it twice).

Turns out, I should not have waited to read Always On - and neither should you.

Give yourself 5 hours and 42 minutes to read Always On (the length of the audiobook … you will read it even faster if you use your eyeballs and not your ears), and you will learn some new things. Brian X. Chen is not an Apple fanboy or an unthinking iPhone evangelist. Rather, Chen (who now writes for the NYT Bits blog) is a thoughtful critic of the costs, as well as the benefits, of our always connected and hyper-networked society. Chen's thesis is that the combination of 3 technologies - the smart phone, ubiquitous bandwidth, and Web 2.0 social tools - have fundamentally changed how we structure our professional and personal lives. Mobile information abundance, combined with always available digital communication, equates to the need for new structures around our work, education, and social lives.

What Chen is advocating is that we take seriously this shift from information/communication scarcity to information/communication abundance. He asks, what would higher education look like if designed around the capabilities the iPhone and mobile apps, and he wonders how the institutions that do not evolve will remain relevant. Chen also recognizes the costs of living in a world where e-mail, text messaging, Twitter, Facebook and the entire Web are always with us. 

Chen does not shy away from detailing the dangers of our mobile web addiction. He worries that we will misuse the technology of smart phones, ubiquitous networks, and social tools to avoid rather than develop authentic relationships. And rather than offer any simple fix-alls or advice, Chen takes the route of detailing how the iPhone and the web has provided both benefits and costs in his own relationships.

The other strength of Always On is Chen's analysis of the pros and cons of Apple's closed iPhone ecosystem. Most writing about Apple's walled garden tends to be either strongly for or strongly against vertical integration. Chen takes a middle path, pointing out the benefits for both companies (profits) and consumers (quality/integrated product experiences) that vertically integrated platforms can create.  

The iPhone and a Mac may (I'd argue do) provide a better use experience than non-closed platforms, but this comes with a set of very high costs around control. The birth of the computer industry owes much of its early growth from the hacker ethos, from young technologists being able to re-program their machines and re-write their software. None of this is possible on an iPhone or iPad. Apple approves each app, and each app must conform to all of Apple's programming policies and guidelines.  In Always On, Chen gives this tension between vertical vs. horizontal / open vs. closed platforms considerable attention, complementing his opinions with thorough (but concisely reported) research and analysis.

Any complaints about Always On? I think that the book could have been even more condensed into the length of Kindle Single, but maybe the iPhone, apps, and the web are contributing to my shortened attention span. This complain should not deter you from reading Always On, as I'd like to chat with you about your reactions to the book.

What are your reading?

 

 

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