Saturday 30 January 2010

Piling On: More Kibitzing about the iPad

What do I think about the new iPad? Glad you asked. What's that? You didn't, really – or not many of you did. But that's OK, really; at least two other writers argue that we're going from an era of "nearly universal literacy" to "nearly universal authorship", so here's my two rupiah worth.

John Gruber, the blogger behind Daring Fireball, is a justly respected voice on a variety of topics, notably all things Apple. Two of his posts on the iPad, The iPad Big Picture and Various and Assorted Thoughts... are a good starting point if you've somehow just managed to crawl out of a bubble that protected you from hearing anything about it for the past, oh, six months or so, or more crucially the last three days. I also enjoyed reading Stephen Fry's thoughts on the device.

But one bit I would recommend above all to anybody who is thinking about "what does this iPad thing/phenomenon really mean?", or anyone who just cares about free expression, open societies, and all the other progress that humanity has made these past few centuries, should seriously ponder Alex Payne's thoughts On the iPad. Al3x makes some very good, if deeply disturbing, points.

As many people have pointed out, the iPad differs in one critical respect from every personal computing device as computing device that Apple have ever built, from the Apple I on up to the iMac that I am typing this on. The iPad is a device, first, foremost and specifically, for the consumption of digital "content". As James Kendrick says, Apple just want us to push the 'Buy' button, in an endless, mindless Pavlovian dystopia.

"Hang on," you say, "it can't really be as bad as all that. You're just pushing histrionics!" I truly hope so. But consider: Apple has sold every Mac, as well as all their earlier models, on the basis of a small group of generally positive, empowering ideas:

  • "It just works better."
  • "The power to be your best."
  • And, of course, "Think different".

One of the (many) things that make the Mac special is the fact that every single Mac sold comes with a copy of the full development toolset for Mac OS X, right in the box. Anybody who wants to invest the time and effort can become a Mac developer. (The money involved, of course, is in buying a Mac in the first place, but you were going to do that anyway, right?) You. The smart-aleck kid down the street. Your Aunt Tillie. Anyone. That has been one of the core strengths of the Apple Mac platform and product; the ability for anyone, without genuflecting before any sort of gatekeeper, to write anything they can conceive of, using some pretty great tools. And thousands, dozens of thousands have. You don't need to be a big corporation. You don't even need to ask Apple's permission, or use Apple's site to market your creation. All you need is an idea, some persistence, and the willingness to learn.

Apple made a radically different statement with the iPhone. If you want to write a "real" app for the iPhone, you need to submit your bits to the App Store, a process that is the seeming antithesis of open, collaborative or fair. As a practical matter, you need to join the iPhone Developer Program, and pay a fee. Doing so will subject you to various license agreements, limitations of what can be developed, and so on.

Apple justified this by saying "hey, the iPhone is a phone, an appliance. We have to keep some control over things, to make sure that our (non-technical) customers have the best possible experience — and incidentally to ensure that we continue to honor agreements we've made with carriers like AT&T." And the developer community grumbled and moaned, but large numbers went along. And the App Store, by almost any measure, is a raging success in the aggregate — even though most individual developers aren't making much at all.

Now comes the iPad, which has been widely, often dismissively, described as a "super-sized iPod Touch." Which, in several senses, it is. But whereas the "iTouch" is an accessory in one's life, being a combination PDA, music player, and (ostensibly) simple application platform, the iPad promises to be all that and more. Specifically, it's being pitched as this "magical" piece of technology which you'll "always" have at hand. Why? Well, you can listen to music on it, or watch videos, or run the same apps you ran on your iTouch or iPhone along with a new generation of "super-sized" apps. Oh, and Apple did announce that their office-software packages would be available on the iPad — so you can use it for "work stuff."

What about the kind of creative outlets that have been highlighted at each Mac introduction since the 1980s? Well, um, good luck with that. Because, even though this is a "real" computer, it's "really not"; it's an up-sized iPod Touch, which is (officially, mostly) a passive device.

The iPad is being pitched as a "magical", but inherently passive, device that consumers will use to buy (or, usually, rent) "content". There'll be "social media" like Facebook, Twitter and so on; the iPhone already supports those. Anything that can be done entirely over the Web, without the use of plugins like Java or Flash (like, is kosher, too. But anything truly creative, "revolutionary", "game-changing", is going to have to survive the App Store gauntlet — which means that it's going to have to be consistent with Apple's view of how the iPad "should" be used. As a passive device which consumers use to buy access to content.

Think "57 Channels and Nothing On," a million times over. Perfect for the top-down, don't-make-me-think society. (I'm sure it will be very popular here in Singapore, for precisely that reason.)

Apple, you can do better. We know, because you've mostly done much better before, and encouraged us, developers and users, to do great things with what you've built for us. The iPad isn't so much a step in the wrong direction, it's a leap of faith worthy of Wile E. Coyote — but we know how far off the edge of the cliff we've gone. And the only way to go from here, is down.

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