From a Walled Garden to a Rainforest

Now that the iPhone is 10 years old, there have been a lot of think pieces about just how transformative Apple’s device has been. Most of these pieces focus on the iPhone’s effect on consumers, but over at RealClearMarkets, Thomas Hazlett focuses on a more policy-related topic. As he writes:

Ten years ago this week the Apple iPhone, described by Steve Jobs as a “revolutionary product” that “changes everything,” went on sale for the first time. A million flew off the shelves in just ten weeks and a decade later—with more than a billion sold worldwide—the iPhone has transformed the way we live, work and do business.

But even as the fanboys and girls were camping out to be at the front of the line, harsh critics queued. Columbia law professor Tim Wu denounced the iPhone as “anticompetitive.” Nested exclusively with AT&T and lurking in a “walled garden,” the iPhone rollout violated “network neutrality,” a term coined by Mr. Wu to describe his preferred platform for fixed and wireless communications.

Hazlett goes on to argue, convincingly, that Apple’s dreaded “walled garden” did not hurt innovation. Instead, it created a tsunami of new ideas, products, and competition — and we’ve all benefited. Hazlett again:

If Mr. Wu’s warnings about the iPhone model had been heeded by policy makers, the true revolutionaries might not have stormed the palace gates. The attempt to protect consumers would have pre-empted what The Atlantic called the “defining consumer item of its age.”

Too often, “net neutrality” is used as a blanket that, if applied by many proponents, could smother very real progress and innovation. As the iPhone and its ecosystem show, sometimes the open internet could use a wall here or there. Or as Hazlett himself concludes in his piece:

Sometimes a “walled garden can turn into a rainforest,” as Steven Johnson noted of Apple, and sometimes it just ends up road kill. But imposing the visions of policy makers over those of Steve Jobs is probably not the best way to distinguish them.

Side note: To get a sense of just how staggering the growth of the iPhone has been, check out this graphic from Statista.

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