More iPad Reactions

February 5, 2010

As I noted in an earlier post, Apple’s introduction of its iPad provoked a lot of reaction from observers and industry pundits: some thought it a potentially game-changing innovation; others thought it was just another try at finding a market for a tablet device, previous versions of which have not been successful.

This week, there are two more reactions in a somewhat different vein, looking at what the iPad might portend for the future development of the Internet, from two observers for whom I have high regard.  The first is Prof. Jonathan Zittrain, of the Harvard Law School and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, whose article appears in the Financial Times.  The second is Prof. Ed Felten, of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, whose article is posted on the CITP’s “Freedom to Tinker” blog.Prof. Zittrain is the author of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It [book download link available], his prediction of a future Internet dystopia in which general-purpose computers will have been replaced by closed, proprietary “appliances”, which will be locked down and controlled by the vendors.  In his Financial Times article, he contrasts the  openness of the Apple II computer, introduced by Steve Jobs in 1977, with the closed architecture and ecosystem of the iPhone, introduced by Steve Jobs and Apple 30 years later.  Although it is possible for outside developers to create applications for the iPhone, and now the iPad, they can only be sold through the App Store, which of course is controlled by Apple.

But the App Store has a catch: app developers and their software must be approved by Apple. If Apple does not like the app, for any reason, it is gone.

Prof. Zittrain has two chief worries about this kind of environment: it will discourage the kind of wide-ranging, no-holds-barred innovation that made the PC market and the Internet so successful in the first place, and it will make it all too easy for content and communication to be regulated.

If Apple is the gatekeeper to a device’s uses, the governments of the world need knock on the door of only one office in Cupertino, California – Apple’s headquarters – to demand changes to code or content . Users no longer own or control the apps they run – they merely rent them minute by minute.

His fear, in part, is that users will be willing to give up freedoms that they may not miss initially, in order to avoid nuisances like spam and malware.

Prof. Felten is somewhat more optimistic.  He points out that the iPad, in particular, includes a Web browser, which means that the user will be able to access applications “in the cloud”.  The environment can’t be completely controlled unless Apple cripples the browser so that it can’t run Web applications.

Will Apple be able to limit their product in this way, despite competition from other, more general-purpose tablets? I doubt it.

But the really important point is that, in order for Prof. Zittrain’s gloomy prediction to come true, the iPad (and similarly closed devices) must not only succeed as products, but displace general-purpose computing devices.  Prof. Felten cites the Amazon Kindle E-reader, which is certainly a closed device controlled by Amazon; yet it is something that people have in addition to a laptop or desktop computer, not as a replacement for it.

So I think that, at least in the developed world, Prof. Felten has the better of the argument here, although it is worth thinking about this whole issue.

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