The recent release of the Apple iPad has prompted me to finally post again on this blog. I was initially enthused as I watched the details emerge from Steve Jobs’ theatrics yesterday, but since then I have been sobered by the realization that this is not the product I was looking for.
My (obviously mistaken) impression of the rumored “Apple tablet” was that it was going to be a “tablet computer done right.” They were going to take Mac OS X, make it easily operable using a touch-screen interface, and build a piece of hardware that was both elegant and capable. My personal belief is that this is what they’ve done with their MacBook computers for “regular” keyboard-based laptops. I looked forward to seeing a corresponding approach to “tablet” computers, but I have since realized that this is not what they have done.
The new iPad is based not on OS X but on the iPhone OS. As such, the distribution of iPad applications is limited to those provided by Apple in the app store. Of course, this does not limit app development to Apple, but it limits distribution to Apple. Further, by controlling the distribution of apps, Apple can also control the distribution of content. For example, they can create a version of Safari that refuses to display certain webpages or a version of iTunes that does not play non-DRM music, and they can prevent competing applications from being distributed widely among the iPad consumer base.
In short, they have built a closed mobile entertainment device. A glorified handheld gaming console. A larger iPod Touch, or a larger iPhone without the cell phone capability. It contains all the components of a personal computer, but it is not a true personal computer.
The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has a term for such a product: “defective by design.” It is a product that is deliberately handicapped from its full capabilities. Let me be clear here: I do not believe they have done something illegal, nor do I believe that what they’ve done SHOULD be illegal. I do, however, believe that what they’ve created runs contrary to the ideals of open computing, and I am opposed to it.
I realize that many folks disagree. Perhaps they welcome the added security that comes from knowing that all apps are reviewed and approved before distribution. Perhaps they enjoy the safety of a closed environment. This reflects the fundamental conflict between freedom and security, and I suppose this is evidence once again that I would generally prefer freedom over security.
Is the iPad really such a big deal in the long run? Probably not. Would I buy one if I had the money to spare? Perhaps. It looks like a cool toy that would be fun and useful to have around. Is it the product that I had hoped for? No. Absolutely not.