Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

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On the iPad

For years, me and thousands of other techies have been wondering what comes after the Personal Computer as we’ve known it. Yesterday, in Apple’s iPad, we caught a glimpse. If I had to pick one predominant emotion in reaction, it would be “disturbed”.

The iPad is an attractive, thoughtfully designed, deeply cynical thing. It is a digital consumption machine. As Tim Bray and Peter Kirn (of Create Digital Music) have pointed out, it’s a device that does little to enable creativity. As just one component of several in a person’s digital life, perhaps that’s acceptable. It seems clear, though, that the ambitions for the iPad are far greater than being a full-color Kindle.

The tragedy of the iPad is that it truly seems to offer a better model of computing for many people – perhaps the majority of people. Gone are the confusing concepts and metaphors of the last thirty years of computing. Gone is the ability to endlessly tweak and twiddle towards no particular gain. The iPad is simple, straightforward, maintenance-free; everything that’s been proven with the success of the iPhone, but more so.

From iPhone to iPad

The iPhone can, to some extent, be forgiven its closed nature. The mobile industry has not historically been comfortable with openness, and Apple didn’t rock that boat when it released the iPhone. The iPhone was no more or less open than devices that preceded it, devices like those from Danger that required jumping similar bureaucratic hurdles to develop for.

That the iPad is a closed system is harder to forgive. One of the foremost complaints about the iPhone has been Apple’s iron fist when it comes to applications and the development direction of the platform. The iPad demonstrates that if Apple is listening to these complaints, they simply don’t care. This is why I say that the iPad is a cynical thing: Apple can’t – or won’t – conceive of a future for personal computing that is both elegant and open, usable and free.

The iPad was pitched by Steve Jobs yesterday as a response to netbooks. It is not a mobile device, per se. Rather, the iPad is competing with full-fledged (if small and ugly) computers capable of running arbitrary programs and operating systems. Play all the category games you want, but the iPad is a personal computer. Apple has decided that openness is not a quality that’s necessary in a personal computer. That’s disturbing.

Tinkerer’s Sunset

The thing that bothers me most about the iPad is this: if I had an iPad rather than a real computer as a kid, I’d never be a programmer today. I’d never have had the ability to run whatever stupid, potentially harmful, hugely educational programs I could download or write. I wouldn’t have been able to fire up ResEdit and edit out the Mac startup sound so I could tinker on the computer at all hours without waking my parents. The iPad may be a boon to traditional eduction, insofar as it allows for multimedia textbooks and such, but in its current form, it’s a detriment to the sort of hacker culture that has propelled the digital economy.

Perhaps the iPad signals an end to the “hacker era” of digital history. Now that consumers and traditional media understand the digital world, maybe there’s proportionally less need for freewheeling technological experimentation and platforms that allow for the same. Maybe the hypothetical mom doesn’t need a real computer. As long as real computers stick around for people who do need them, maybe there’s no harm in that.

Wherever we stand in digital history, the iPad leaves me with the feeling that Apple’s interests and values going forward are deeply divergent from my own. There’s nothing wrong with that; people make consumer decisions every day based on their values. If I don’t like the product that the iPad turns out to be once released, I’m free to simply not buy it. These things have a way of evolving, and I won’t preclude the possibility that Apple eventually addresses concerns about the openness of the device.

For now, though, I remain disturbed. The future of personal computing that the iPad shows us is both seductive and dystopian. It’s not a future I want to bring into my home.

Postscript, January 29

Having had a day to think this post over and receive some very thoughtful feedback, there are several things I’d like to add while it’s still relevant.

First off, my remark about not learning to program if I had an iPad wasn’t intended to be a blanket statement about any child not learning to program on the device. There are plenty of kids out there who are way smarter and more motivated than I was in my formative years, and I’m sure they’ll tinker no matter what obstacles are put in their way. The iPad could actually be a great platform for teaching kids to program if Apple decides to remove the artificial restrictions on running interpreted code on the iPad/iPhone OS.

Which brings me to the point I was really trying to make: Apple’s decision to make the iPad a closed device is an artificial one. It’s been several years since I worked in security, but as best I understand, there’s no practical technical reason why the iPad must be its particular flavor of closed in order to be usable and reliable. It’s still possible to enforce sandboxing and resource limitations in an open system; it simply requires a different approach. As Christian Neukirchen said on Twitter:

“There is no reason why Apple couldn’t allow enabling unapproved apps with a flag somewhere… except for their greed and will to power.”

Or, as Adam Pash of Lifehacker put it yesterday:

“To say that ‘either a device is user friendly or it’s open’ is a false dichotomy.”

Honestly, as simple a step as Apple making iPhone/iPad SDK access free – along with its ability to install apps on the Apple devices you paid for – would be an acceptable first step towards openness. Let’s do some clumsy math on this point. According to Wikipedia, there are currently around 140,000 apps in the App Store. Let’s round up and say that each app is made by a different developer. So, at $99 per year per developer, that’s $13,860,000 per year that Apple is making selling SDK access. For a company that just posted a net quarterly profit of $3.38 billion, I think it’s safe to call the SDK money a drop in the bucket.

Further, the argument that Apple has invested in the “Open Web” as an alternative free platform for their devices simply doesn’t ring true to me. Talk to any non-geek iPhone user and you’ll quickly realize that they have no idea that web apps can, for example, be saved to the home screen like regular apps. The general attitude, once they get used to the phone, is that if there isn’t an app for it, it’s not worth doing on the device. And why wouldn’t they have this impression? Apple’s ad campaign isn’t “there’s an app for that, and also the entire open web”. For now, the web is an afterthought on these devices.

I’ll close with this: if I didn’t think the iPad was an important device, I wouldn’t be bothering to criticize its politics. Like Steven Frank, I think this a new world, a new era, and I’m not interested in hanging on to the past. Like Joe Hewitt, I’m excited to develop for the iPad, and to use what others develop for it as well.

As I said at the top of this post, I’ve been waiting for years for what comes after the PC, and I truly believe that Apple has shown it to us. That’s why it matters so crucially that this next leg of the computer revolution gets off on the right path, one that embraces openness rather than abhors it. We have the technology and the incentive to build the future of computing in an open way. The only reason not to is greed, laziness, and hubris.

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