Several people have asked me what I think about Apple’s newly-announced iPad.

While there’s no doubting it’s a significant technical and design achievement, and is filled with the usual Apple lusciousness, the iPad scares me, and why it scares me is well-expressed in the blog post Is the iPad the harbinger of doom for personal computing?, the heart of which is this:

The fundamental difference between a Mac and an iPhone is that I can run any software I want on my Mac. I can buy it on a DVD, I can download it from the Internet, or I can compile it myself. I can get rid of OS X and install another operating system. The Mac is a general purpose computer in the classic sense. The iPhone is not.

Apple decides which software I can run on my iPhone. Apple provides the only means by which I can get it. The platform is for all intents and purposes, closed, and the hardware is closed as well. Sure, the iPhone is great to use, but the price of using it is that you’re rewarding Apple’s choice to bet on closed platforms.

What bothers me is that in terms of openness, the iPad is the same as the iPhone, but in terms of form factor, the iPad is essentially a general purpose computer. So it strikes me as a sort of Trojan horse that acculturates users to closed platforms as a viable alternative to open platforms, and not just when it comes to phones (which are closed pretty much across the board). The question we must ask ourselves as computer users is whether the tradeoff in freedom we make to enjoy Apple’s superior user experience is worth it.

I agree completely.

I don’t want the spirit of the digital devices in my life to become more iPhone-like, especially the devices at the heart of my digital nervous system; the prospect of owning an iPad seems awfully like buying a pair of exquisitely-design shoes that can only be shined, re-laced or repaired by sending them off to the manufacturer.

The iPad, like the iPhone and the iPod touch, represent another step down the road toward Internet devices being kneecapped into a conduit for us to passively pay for and consume tightly controlled and regulated content.

The power of the net for me has always rested in its utility as a vehicle for freely producing, sharing, mashing-up and distributing stuff, not in its utility for allowing me to watch re-runs of LOST more easily. While there’s no doubt that the iPad is a sleek device to enable the later, it fails abjectly as a device for the former, and if anything it has me thinking it might be time to sell the MacBook and invest in a more open solution for my desktop before it too falls prey to this emerging ethos.


Josh Biggley's picture
Josh Biggley on January 29, 2010 - 13:35

I didn’t even consider the nefarious implications of a closed platform on my digital life. Apple has quietly slipped into the role that many people felt Microsoft solely occupied in the mid- to late- 90s by this interpretation. A question though — outside of Linux (in all its flavours) are there any other desktop-style OSes that could be used on a similar platform? I wonder if the same functionality could be found in a more open platform (JooJoo?) or one of the many tablets that run Android.


Leah Tremain's picture
Leah Tremain on January 29, 2010 - 22:12

I can buy a developer kit and build something for these “i” devices. How people get that application, the parameters I work within, and what they do with it is controlled yes — but I am allowed the creativity to build within the hardware specifications of the device. This isn’t new — but for me, being able to build something that works with hardware always feels empowering.

The iPad, is the only device I can imagine being part of my children’s grandparents lives (without the many phonecalls it would take to support them on a full computer). In this case; the limitations of the iPad software, the limitations of how one gets that software and the limitations of what one can do with it — has a distinct advantage.

I could not comfortably say this if I didn’t have all my other computing choices available. And being a PC and Linux user with an Android phone I haven’t experienced this shift you describe first hand. So I do agree with you but I’m also excited about the possibilities of building applications for the iPad and for sharing this device with computer-avoiding-needs-locked-down-limited-use-type people.

Gabrillathehun's picture
Gabrillathehun on January 30, 2010 - 00:36

This looks like the only place I can make a comment or try to get a hold of the creator… because I would like to take off a couple comments that I had put up, on the ‘future shop’ archive … a couple years back (??) Can anyone help??? This is frustrating!!!

Oliver's picture
Oliver on February 2, 2010 - 04:38

I’m not very tech savvy, but I thought that the “openness” that matters above all others, I thought, was the API—the lexicon of commands that, for a given OS, get it to do what the writer of a program wants it to do. Is it that you become vulnerable to having that openness taken away down the line for an OS that is copyright protected? Or is it that before that time comes—when people will be forced to create a new OS if they are to retain access to the API—few will know how to make an OS? Note though that not many people can make a computer chip nowadays, though when people were designing the first abacus or the first computers with vacuum tubes, the freedom to innovate at that level must have seemed essential to the activity. The level of technology at which, economically, it’s productive for the most individuals to be tinkering and innovating, may just move ever upward. First chips become commoditized , then operating systems…perhaps.

Oliver's picture
Oliver on February 2, 2010 - 06:14

Funny that I coasted from proprietizing to commoditizing without a pause in between. I guess so long as you have at least two multinationals who sell a thing, then it’s a commodity.

Mookoo's picture
Mookoo on June 29, 2010 - 22:21

I think there will always be a great need for more advanced computing, particular for business users. I see the iPad and similar alternative devices more as what you want sitting beside you on the couch or coffee table or to use on the metro, etc., etc. Another thing, many of these devices have or will have full or almost-full installations of Windows 7/Linux. Here’s a good site that shows a lot of the devices that will be competing with the iPad: http://www.alternatives2ipad.c…

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