The Wisdom of One

By David Shenk

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By now, we've all heard much about the elegance and dynamism of bottom-up systems: how the "wisdom of crowds" creates a powerful collective intelligence (a "hive mind") that infuses the internet, free markets, and other large, collaborative groups. 

I am not here to contradict that notion. There's no question that bottom-up is real and exciting (and sometimes terrifying).

But recent events remind us that excellence is often about ruthless top-down standards and discipline; that, ultimately, great works usually require a very tough-to-please person on a throne.  

Why is the iPhone insanely great? Why was "60 Minutes" the most important show on television for so many years? Why is Barack Obama on his way to being the best president since FDR? 

In these and so many other instances, it often comes down to the old-fashioned, tried-and-true, wisdom of one.

Now, even Wikipedia, the epitome of the bottom-up web ethos, is adding a top-down, quality control component. In a few weeks, Wikipedia will begin requiring each change to a page about a living person be approved by a certified Wiki editor before going live. "It is a test," Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales told the New York Times. "We will be interested to see all the questions raised." 

Meanwhile, Apple seems to be having its own strange top/bottom crisis -- a first for the company. With the famously intimidating Steve Jobs at the helm, Apple has always been top-heavy. Jobs's Apple invented personal computing, then spurred the digital audio revolution, then introduced the first genuinely smart phone, and then, with the App Store, created an entirely new mobile information culture. No one disputes that these advances (any one of which would make Apple historically important), are largely due to Jobs's freakish demands of unparalleled quality and innovation.

(And we perhaps haven't even seen the best Apple product yet: the possibly game-changing tablet.)

Apple now finds itself in a bit of pickle, though. Its App Store success, which exists only because the iPhone is such an extraordinary top-down device, has created such expectations among so many people that many have come to think of it as a tiny Internet universe -- and therefore expect it to assume similarly bottom-up, democratic values. This sense of public entitlement reached a peak recently with fury over Apple's high-profile rejection (or non-approval) of the Google Voice app. Some software developers have even begun to boycot the company.

Joe Hewitt, one of the founding developers of the Firefox web browser and the creator of the iPhone Facebook app, is not boycotting. But he has written a compelling piece insisting that Apple should drop all app control, opening it up to the same peer-review jungle that the rest of the internet lives by. "The review process needs to be eliminated completely," declares Hewitt. He continues:

The fact is this: Apple does not have the means to perform thorough quality assurance on any app. This is up to the developer. We have our own product managers and quality assurance testers, and we are liable to our users and the courts if we do anything evil or stupid. Apple may catch a few shallow bugs in the review process, but let's face it, the real things they are looking for are not bugs, but violations of the terms of service. This is all about lawyers, not quality, and it shows that the model of Apple's justice system is guilty until proven innocent. They don't trust us, and I resent that, because the vast majority of us are trustworthy.

Hewitt may well be correct when he says that, at present, Apple isn't really instituting strict quality control on iPhone apps. Apple itself revealed recently that they receive 8,500 new applications and updates every week, and that each one is reviewed by at least two reviewers. With only 40 full-time reviewers, that comes to an average of five and a half minutes per reviewer per app. 

But I disagree with Hewitt's proposed solution. I think Apple needs to go the other way, instituting much more quality control on the process. Far too many apps either don't work or turn out to be a waste of time and money. And while no one seems to be confusing independent apps with Apple's own products, bad apps drag down the user experience. With their enormous royalties from the App Store, Apple could easily have ten-fold more reviewers, with many supervisors taking a tough line against substandard apps. 

(As a strange example of how broken the app system is right now, you can visit one of Apple's own promotional web pages highlighting an app called Gpush, even though Gpush -- according to hundreds of people who've paid for it -- simply doesn't work). 

Demand quality and you will get it. That's been Apple's mantra, and should continue to be. And it's one we can all learn from.

[PLEASE WEIGH IN: SHOULD THE APP STORE BE MORE BOTTOM-UP OR TOP-DOWN?]
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Correction (8/27/99): Wales is co-founder, not founder, of Wikipedia.

Belated full disclosure (8/27/99): I own Apple stock, and my filmmaker brother Jon has done extensive work for Apple.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2009/08/the-wisdom-of-one/23839/