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iWorry: Does the iPad Signal the End of the Era of Open Computing?

For those of you living under a rock, Apple’s announcement of the iPad tablet has shaken up the tech world. The combination of slick hardware and more-than-usable software has long been Apple’s stock-in-trade, and the iPad demonstrates again what we saw with the iPod back in 2001, and the iPhone back in 2007–interface matters. Tablet computers aren’t new, but neither were MP3 players or smart phones.


There’s no doubt: The iPad is a beautiful, extremely well-designed device.


So why am I worried?

The iPad runs the iPhone OS and uses the iTunes App Store. That means that it will have a large selection of applications ready to go when it hits the shelves in March, but it also means that Apple will be the sole source of the applications, deciding what can and what can’t run on the device.

Lots of people dislike that aspect of the iPhone experience, but I can’t say that I was terribly bothered by it. I understand that most iPhone users want a phone that can do other nifty things, not a general purpose computer that happens to make phone calls. Strict control over apps minimizes the chances that someone will find their phone hacked or virus-laden. As we add more computational smarts into our physical surroundings, this kind of software management is almost certain to become commonplace. We’ve already seen digital picture frames pre-loaded with viruses; I’m not eager to have my refrigerator hacked or my alarm clock turned against me.

But the iPad isn’t a phone; it is a general purpose computer. It does email and Web and documents and presentations and games and all of the other kinds of things we do with our “regular” computers. Yet it will suffer under the same restrictions as the iPhone–prohibition of any application that Apple doesn’t like, for whatever reason. Sometimes that means the application uses undocumented features, but startlingly often it just means “duplication of features“–the application does something that Apple’s own software does, but does it differently. (This raises the uncomfortable question as to whether the Kindle app for the iPhone–which works quite nicely, actually–will run on the iPad.)


This is problematic to me for a couple of reasons. The first, and simplest, reason is that it narrows the scope of innovation. The main reason why the personal computer–including the Mac–served as a catalyst for economic and social transformation was that it was open to every imaginable use. The only limits came from hardware capacity and code complexity, not arbitrary restrictions. The iPad, as swoopy and neat as it may seem, won’t trigger a similar revolution.

But this is just the iPad, right? So Apple wants to shoot itself in the innovation foot in order to maximize control. That doesn’t affect my other machines. Right?

For now. The second reason this worries me is that successfully shifting one general purpose computer to a world of controlled software may lead to similar restrictions showing up on other kinds of general purpose hardware. I don’t want to wake up one day and find that the next version of the Mac OS (or Windows, for that matter) will only run “approved” software.


Okay, slippery slope arguments always curve towards hyperbole, and I really don’t think that the next version of any mainstream OS is going to be restricted like that. But the version after the next one? One uncomfortable question is just how readily a restricted application scenario would support the aggressive copyright rules now being negotiated in secret.

I’m not an Apple-hater–I’m writing this on a Macbook, with my iPhone on the desk. And there are definitely positive aspects about the iPad announcement that stand out for me.

The first is the price. While it’s easy to find netbooks running well under $500, tablet computers and touch-screen notebooks rarely get that low (and, of course, none of them have this interface).

The second is Apple’s choice to use the open ePub format for electronic books. This one surprised me more than the price, actually–with Amazon’s Kindle already using a proprietary format, and Apple pushing the semi-proprietary AAC format for its iTunes music, all signs seemed to point to an Apple-controlled ebook standard. It’s still unknown how difficult it will be to use non-iBook ePub documents, but in principle, the system should be open to any publisher.

So the iPad has a number of nifty characteristics, and it’s certainly tempting. But I’m very conscious of how quickly the line between utility device that happens to have a microprocessor and a general purpose computer that offers basic utility services has blurred. And I worry about the rules for restricted devices finding their way into the general purpose systems that have come to be so important for innovation and experimentation.


I see your Jesus Phone with a Moses Tablet by Jamais Cascio, Creative Commons licensed

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