The Problem With The Apple iPad

Yesterday, Steve Jobs worked his charm, attempting to wow the world with the Apple iPad, a new, super-slim computer he touted as the missing link between iPhones and laptops. It's an undeniably beautiful device, but it also represents some serious problems.

Note: This subjective post gets rather long winded, so if you don't have time for every hem and haw, skip straight to the meat of the problem.

The Good

At first glance, the iPad does a lot of things really well — particularly compared to its competition. This depends on what you consider its competition, but for sheer size and price alone, let's say its primary competition is the Kindle, followed by netbooks. Last, and maybe more importantly, consider that maybe it doesn't have any competition because it's aiming for a mostly new market, much like the iPhone completely goosed the primarily business-friendly, BlackBerry-dominated smartphone market. No matter what you consider its competition, it's likely that the iPad outpaces said competition handily.

The Kindle: To start, if we compare the iPad to a Kindle, it's really only lacking in one or two arenas from the standpoint of most consumers: It's not using e-ink, so it's potentially not as friendly on the eyes, and the battery life is only 10 hours, which is seriously short by e-book reader standards. Now consider this: It's roughly the same size as the Kindle, can do infinitely more (it can even run a complete end-around the Kindle by running Kindle software), and it's beautiful.

Like in life, that last bit — the looks — matter more than we may like to admit. And why shouldn't it matter? Apart from, you know, the usefulness factor, eye candy has always played an important role in technology adoption.

Netbooks: Full disclosure: I've never owned a netbook. And maybe that's part of the problem. For all the useful, inexpensive netbooks out there, the netbook market has yet to take hold in any meaningful way outside of the enthusiast niche. I'm not relying on any real numbers here — more on experience at airports, coffee shops and public places where people with computers go. Those are the places netbooks were made for, right? And yet all I see at these places are laptops and iPhones.

For most people, netbooks have very limited sex appeal. There's no question that they do what they're supposed to do, or that they do it well, but last I checked, the netbook hasn't really filled that "for when you just need a lightweight computer to do some lightweight surfing, word processing, etc" need. The iPad is aiming straight at this market, and could potentially succeed where netbooks haven't.

Lack of competition: Most disconcerting to this technology lover — which I'll discuss in more detail below — is that the iPad really has no direct competition. In fact, at the end of the day it's much more like an iPhone or iPod touch than it is anything else. It's just got better guts and a bigger screen. It seems most accurate to consider the iPad a computer that runs the iPhone OS.

The Problem

So why is it a problem if the iPad is better than it's competition, or — more likely — fills a niche that hasn't been addressed well enough to this point? Yesterday Gizmodo rounded up eight things that suck about the iPad, focusing primarily on hardware issues like its lack of a camera, an ugly bezel, and lack of even a single USB port (sans adaptors); we could likewise complain about how the iPad's graphical design seems like a complete afterthought. But much more important, at least from the perspective of a blog that's pretty serious about controlling the way you're able to use your computer, is the software problem.

The iPad, much like the iPhone, is completely locked down. The user has no control over what she installs on the hardware short of accepting exactly what Apple has approved for it. From past experience, we know what happens when a completely legitimate application — from a huge company that's actually partnered with Apple — doesn't gel with Apple's business plan. They reject it, and you can't use it. And what recourse does the power user have?

Jailbreaking! And certainly the iPad will see plenty of hacking, but only because Apple requires you to hack the device if you actually want control over it yourself. Apple's gotten into the habit of acting like you're renting hardware. They've become the all-powerful, over-restrictive, ambivalent IT person in the sky, restricting what users can and can't install on their hardware.

With a device like the iPhone, most people slowly accepted Apple's IT state over time. Apple's stance is basically that their lockdown is for your own good — they're protecting us from unstable apps, pornography, confusion and other nasties. And for the most part, it worked, right? iPhones have remained fast, capable, and strong-like-bull, and extremely popular. But conceding that Apple's restrictive policies are to credit is sort of like claiming you've cured cancer because you knocked on wood every morning of your life and, as a result, never got cancer. (Sorry for the weak simile.)

What's dangerous about the iPad is that it's much closer to a "real" computer than the iPhone is. If you dock it with the keyboard accessory, it really is just a laptop, probably powered somewhere along the lines of a MacBook Air. And yet this is a computer over which you have absolutely no control. And the question is: If we all continue to buy Apple's locked-down products hand-over-fist (Jobs went so far as to talk about Apple as a mobile device company yesterday), what reason does Apple have not to keep moving forward with that model — a model that, to many, is defective by design.

Apple's saying to consumers: "Trade in choice for a guarantee that this will work exactly as we designed it to, and you'll never be upset with a computer again." Unfortunately there's no reason to believe the trade is necessary. At the very best, it seems like Apple's extreme and obsessive control over what you're allowed to run on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch is maybe delaying the point at which your software demands outpace the hardware, but even that's is debatable. With the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch, you're trading choice and control in exchange for unsubstantiated promises. The Free Software Foundation put it much better:

DRM is used by Apple to restrict users' freedom in a variety of ways, including blocking installation of software that comes from anywhere except the official Application Store, and regulating every use of movies downloaded from iTunes. Apple furthermore claims that circumventing these restrictions is a criminal offence, even for purposes that are permitted by copyright law.

If Jobs and Apple are actually committed to creativity, freedom, and individuality, they should prove it by eliminating the restrictions that make creativity and freedom illegal.

Attention needs to be paid to the computing infrastructure our society is becoming dependent upon. This past year, we have seen how human rights and democracy protesters can have the technology they use turned against them by the corporations who supply the products and services they rely on. Your computer should be yours to control. By imposing such restrictions on users, Steve Jobs is building a legacy that endangers our freedom for his profits.

A Simple Solution?

To be clear, the App Store isn't exactly the problem — it's the way Apple runs and limits the App Store. Let's say, for example, that Apple added one simple section to the App Store. I'll leave it to the Apple Geniuses to come up with a more marketable name, but for our purposes, let's call it the Restricted section.

Now let's say that Apple continues to run the App Store the way it always has, but rather than reject applications that it feels may confuse the user (like they claimed Google Voice* or Google Latitude might), or applications that allow users to access naughty pictures, or even applications that it hasn't had time to vet for the App Store proper, they put those applications in the Restricted section. Before a user is able to install applications from the Restricted section, that user has to agree that the application may confuse their feeble minds, offend their delicate sensibilities, or even slow down their device. Is this such a problem?

(*Incidentally, even if we accept Apple's reasons for rejecting the Google Voice application on the iPhone, what reason is there to likewise reject it for the iPod touch and, presumably, the iPad? Neither have phone functionality out of the box, and now the non-phone devices actually outnumber the iPhone.)

Even better, it could work like the package manager it actually is and allow users to add their own trusted repositories as sources for other applications. Same disclaimers apply, but Apple is even further removed from culpability — they're not even hosting the apps.

The point is, users should at least be allowed to flip some switch, somewhere on the machine, that says, "Hey computer, I'm an adult, and I take responsibility over how I use this machine."

So You're Saying I Have to Make a Statement with My Computer Purchases Now?

I'm not here to get all political (though Apple doesn't give a shit about poor people), but the point is this: As power users, do we really want to send the message to Apple and other hardware manufacturers that we're cool with them taking away our choice? The iPad looks great, and by every account it also feels great and performs like a peach, but it's rife with problems. Unlike the iPhone, where it was easy enough to convince ourselves that these problems were imposed for good reason, the iPad is basically a keyboard-less netbook that will exert complete control over what you're allowed to use on it.

Caveat Emptor!

Sending messages aside, my main aim is to discourage readers from buying an iPad. Or if not to discourage, to ensure that people understand the system they're buying into if and when they do purchase one. The fact remains that the iPad seems better than any device of its kind out there, so it's very tempting if you want a big, pretty tablet that can do a lot of neat computer things. But it also comes with some serious problems.

Every now and then, we like to go on grumpy, long-winded, opinionated rants. We're far from the definitive voice, and your feelings may differ, so feel free to air your thoughts in the comments.

Adam Pash is the editor of Lifehacker. You can find more of his work everyday on Lifehacker along with the occasional burst of tweets on Twitter.


Comments

    No HDMI output? come on

      No USB.

        If this had USB and Flash support I'd buy it the day it comes out.

    Dam it Apple! Why do you keep feeding us more and more resons to hate you??! I don't want to, I WANT to like your products and your company but I just.. can't.. quite.. get.. there.
    I must admit the iPad is the first Apple product in quite a while that is actually starting to tempt me... but to no avail. Way, way lacking in features for me and DAM IT y do u have to be such a dictatorship over us mere mortals Apple? WHHHY??

    Great article/rant, exactly my reasoning for not purchasing this device. The next generation of the iPad (or even iPhone OS 4.0) might ease the restrictions, but it's unlikely. The iPad will be the most hacked/jailbroken Apple product to date, and no one except Apple will care.

    Here, here.

    The iPhone jailbreak brought with it some invaluable apps like Backgrounder, ProSwitcher, SBSettings - apps that enhance the user experience and should've part of the original apple firmware. When a jailbreak is found for the iPad it'll be worth looking at, but unfortunately the average consumer has no knowledge of what they're missing out on

    Adam, I don't normally write to these things but I want to offer a different perspective. My main disagreement with the article is that you are discouraging people from not buying Apple's product because of their business model and not product specifications or whether good at what it does.

    You made a small mention of what iPad doesn't do but I get the feeling the article is more about differences in the way Apple handle their business in terms of protecting their intellectual property.

    I don't see a problem with the level of control Apple have and the implication is that Apple are doing this to control creativity, freedom of speech, etc.

    The way I see it, is that Apple are tailoring the experience based on 80/20 rule where 80% have a well tailored and defined experience and don't need/or want extra flexibility. To me this is the business decision and not them quashing creativity, freedom of speech, etc. I think the controls are in place to have a tight user experience (think about how all the apps in iTunes have a consistent look, feel and behviour).

    Personally, I think it is a lost opportunity for Apple but from a software development and protecting IP, I can understand why they do it. Put yourself in their shoes.

    FYI based on what I have read, I am not looking to buy an iPad because I want more of a tablet device but my wife will probably buy one because of the reading and internet capability.

    Go easy on me guys (being a first timer). My intent in this post was just to put a different perspective and not start a flame war.

      The issues that Adam quite fairly raises have little to do with the 80/20 concept you raise.

      The 80/20 rule is generally dictated by Apple's user interface guidelines.

      How does 80/20 address me not being able to install an alternatve web browser or email client? How does it address me not being able to play movies that are not mp4 format (when even my TV can play almost every modern digital video format)?

      Make no mistake, Apple's lockdown is a business decision to benefit the business (surprise they're a corporation). Any benefit to the consumer is just a convenient side-effect.

        Maybe my example of the consistent interface for Apps was not the best.

        The use of the 80/20 rule was to illustrate that the 'majority' demographic (who buy apple products and have made them so successful) do not ultimately want an alternative browser, email client, to be able to jailbreak or worry about different music/video formats. They just want a browser, an email client and a music/video player. I am guessing you have a good TV to be able to play all the video formats but do all the formats provide the same consistent quality? I tried burning some DVD's which I own but gave up because I didn't get the right format, compression, settings, etc.

        The restrictions imposed by Apple seem to be what's getting people's knickers in a knot. Whether Apple does this purposely to restrict freedom, individuality, creativity as quoted by the FSF, I don't think so (I'm an optimist but even if they could make a quick buck out of it, do you think they would not).

        I believe some measure of control is required to legitimately protect your intellectual property as well as control the experience for the majority of people. What level that is, is debatable. I still think that the core product set is what will make people buy or not. Time will only tell.

        If the product doesn't suit, just don't buy it, and move on.

    It's slightly thicker and slightly heavier than the iPad but I reckon that most, if not all of the complaints that people have about Apple's new gizmo can be answered by Archos:

    Webcam? Check!
    Multitasking? Check!
    Flash? Check!
    No restrictions on the software you can install? Check!
    USB sockets? Check!

    Downsides? No multitouch that I know of, no 3G option (unless you include the many USB dongles on the market). I guess some of you may consider Windows 7 a downside but that's opinion.

    http://www.archos.com/products/nb/archos_9/index.html?country=gb&lang=en

    UK Price is £459.77 which is about AU$830.I reckon that'll be competitive with the mid-range iPads, but that's just a guess.

    I hate how everyone keeps going on about how restrictive Apple products are and how woefully lacking in features. The thing is though, people are buying them for a reason. They are GOOD products—many think the best in their field. Apple can't just cram all their products full of features and put the price up above the majority of their consumers. How can you complain about lack of features, as if it were a personal affront, when they are trying to cater to such a wide audience? For a company that manufactures that kind of hardware in so many different areas, price and features must be a very delicate balancing act.

    More importantly though, here's Apple, trying new things. Apple come up with new ideas and concepts at a phenomenal rate. Here they are, on their first foray into the world of tablet computing, providing their first product in that area, and people are complaining it doesn't have all the features they want. Give Apple a chance! Let them work out what they need to change to meet the needs of their user base, and tell them what you think they should do, but perhaps consider the fact that they are actually WORKING on bringing you the things you want. I think a little recognition for their efforts and their potential would be better placed than complaints which fail to recognise Apple’s efforts to cater to all manner of people, not just the technically inclined.

      Poor, poor old Apple. How were they to know people might want USB? A new standard like that with such limited market penetration, surely we can forgive them for not taking the risk?

        And just what exactly will the USB be used for?

        It's true that just about everything has USB, but just about everything won't work with the iPad, and it obviously wasn't designed to work with them. Pretty much the only thing that would be any use is external storage, like a flash drive or a memory card or the photos on a camera. Beyond that, the iPad has WiFi for everything else.

        I personally would have included an SD card reader, but it's hardly something worth crucifying them for.

      Apple are not "trying new things", all they have done is made a larger version of the iPod Touch. Sorry, not impressed.

    For anyone who fails to see a practical implication of the locking-down of Apple's kit, consider the catch-up tv services offered by some broadcasters these days.

    ABC, SBS and Seven all offer this in Australia. By disallowing Flash support and strictly controlling the apps that are available, Apple are limiting you to watching video via YouTube and the Apple Store. Whilst YouTube are brokering deals with broadcasters (http://tinyurl.com/yfrjm2z) it's not yet possible to watch full-length movies or TV unless you pay a premium for it via the Apple Store.
    The BBC iPlayer can be downloaded to your PC so UK residents can download DRM'd shows to watch when away from an internet connection. If the ABC, SBS, 7, 9 or 10 were to create such a thing for the Apple app store, would you want it? Do you think Apple would approve it?

    IPTV is the future. The digital TV rollout in Australia may be in full swing, but in the UK they're already moving onto DVB2 and the proposed standard for Freeview includes an ethernet port for IPTV (http://tinyurl.com/yd9xmmp).

    I'll save my dollars for a device that lets me choose who I buy my content from. The iPad doesn't and, I suspect, never will.

    I think Nathan & Jae hit the nail on the head here. If you don't like Apple products, why not vote with your feet and buy products by somebody else? Go to the Android model and get a device that can run anything you want! Customise it and fiddle with it to your hearts content and leave all of the non-geek public to play with their iPhones!

    What's that, this article isn't about you? It's about all the non-geeks that buy iPhones but really should get all the freedom to install whatever they want? Problem with that is that you can't have the freedom without introducing the complexity and the bugs and the problems with the device. Be honest, can you really imagine your Mum picking up and using a Droid running Android, or a N900 running Maemo? Can you imagine actually giving them the freedom to install whatever they want, whenever they want and then expect to still have an easy-to-use, bulletproof device. We only need to look towards the Windows platform with spyware, viruses, malware toolbars, malicious software that changes your search etc to see that this model doesn't work.

    By limiting the scope of the device, Apple limits the problems people will have with the device. You can argue that we could put warning and boxes and "Agree" buttons, but I'm pretty sure Internet Explorer pops those up when good-ol' Mum tries to install the malware toolbar and I can tell you that it's still there when I go to visit! Basically, let's be brutal here, one of Apple's biggest strengths is that they product the idiot's from themselves. It's not nice, but it's probably true!

    Apple: Just works.... for idiots.

      Don't like it, don't buy it? You do realise that is what Adam is saying right?

      This is the iPad. This is Apple. If you don't agree then you shouldn't buy it.

      In a nutshell.

      Also, for all the lockdown on the iPhone/iPod Touch, it's far from bulletproof.

      We want to like Apple but their products just have a few problems that are definitely fixable. Software problems can be addressed after jail-breaking but the hardware problems are killers.

    Great piece. With every move, Apple becomes more-and-more the North Korea of the tech industry. Thinking consumers would do well over the long run to actively avoid their products.

    Dear Adam,
    Thank you for saying all the things that needed saying about Apple. I have a new iPhone, and because of Apple's restrictions I will be changing ASAP to the next gen Nexus (Google Phone).

    Simply by stopping me using an external Bluetooth keyboard Apple has made this device difficult to use. I am a competent touch typist and my business nowadays is run off the Cloud. All appointments come to me from my office via Google Calander, all documents are stored on the Cloud and my communication mode of choice is email or phone, no fax or letters if possible.

    Apple makes it impossible for me to rapidly communicate, I am made to feel like a five year old tapping away at a screen and having to be so very careful but still full of errors. As well, if they allowed an external keyboard I would have the use of the full screen for text rather than 3mm by 15mm which is all that Apple allows due to the large requirements of the on screen keyboard.

    Maybe it's a question of perspective - everyone's looking at the iPad as though it's a computer, when in reality it's a peripheral. You use it for set purposes, and can sync it with your 'real' computer when you get home. It's a tool that does a specific job, like a mouse, or a printer. If you want flexibility re software, multitasking and all the rest - get a computer!!
    OMG Apple, I've got your Magic Mouse and now I've discovered that it won't make a pot of coffee whinge whinge.

      The fact that the keynote spend a good amount of time specifically on the iWork suite is telling everyone that it is a computer!

      So based on the perspective that Apple has presented, your point isn't valid.

    Geez vendor lock-in gone mad.

    Welcome to the hotel california
    Such a lovely place ..
    You can checkout any time you like,
    But you can never leave!

    Hopefully the device will be jailbroken a.s.a.p by some smart cookie.Then I will be able to connect my jailbroken iphone via mywi tether and have 3g connectivity when not near a hot spot,maybe even ssh in a few files etc.No doubt apple make great looking classy products,just a pity they want to stifle individuality.You would think if they opened the Os all the jailbroken apps could be sold through itunes giving them a greater turnover/cut of apps profit.

    Come on. We should not buy a Benz or a BMW or even any brand of car because the car manufacturers allow the car owners use spare parts designed only and mostly made by them. Do you see car manufacturers control car owners in using their purchased cars?

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