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.
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.
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.
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.