The iPad’s Brave New World

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

In my previous two columns, I concluded by mentioning an uneasiness regarding the potential implications for the iPad of the closed nature of iPhone OS. As promised, I explore this topic more fully in today’s column.

To quickly cut to the chase, I am going to assume that you already know what I mean when I say: that the iPhone OS is “closed,” that Apple maintains a tight control over iPhone OS devices, and that I believe this is not a good thing. If you’re unsure what I mean, you can choose from a passel of my prior columns, from as far back as two years ago to as recent as last week (in between, you can find related columns such as The iPhone: A Puzzle Box and Apple App Store Rejections). Yes, I have written a good deal on this topic (some would say too much).

As I have noted before, the iPhone OS probably represents what Steve Jobs would have wanted the Mac OS to be back in 1984, if only it were possible then. Happily for Steve, it is possible now.

The arrival of the iPad

I am already on record with a positive assessment of the iPad and predicting its success. Still, I have some of the same concerns about iPhone OS running on the iPad as I have had for the iPhone. But there’s an added twist with the iPad: it is not far-fetched to imagine a not-too-distant future where the original iPad’s descendants replace Mac OS X-based laptops for all but the smallest minority of users. Given that laptops already make up the majority of Mac sales, this would likely mean that most Apple users would be using an iPhone-OS-based device as their only computer.

Just today, I read Dave Hamilton’s similar assessment: “It will take a few years for the tablet to mature into what Apple’s target customers need, but make no mistake: the laptop is doomed and Apple is getting the iPad ready to casually step into its place.”

What then? Apple’s tight control over what software we can load on our computers, over what parts the OS we are permitted to access, and over what peripherals we are able to attach, would be the norm. This will be fine with Apple, as it will add to its profits with every app sold in the App Store and every peripheral licensed to run with the iPhone OS. And I am sure many users, probably including me, will rejoice overall. But I also find it a bit depressing.

Adam Engst, expressing similar concerns in TidBITS, concluded: “Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t going to happen in the next year, but I think it’s where computing is going in the next ten years.”

This may be an unstoppable trend. As devices become more complex, their innards typically become more opaque and inaccessible to the general user. But what Apple is doing is not merely a consequence of Apple’s engineers attempting to deal with the increased complexity of its products; it is a direct consequence of Apple’s business decisions. Make no mistake. Apple is doing this more for its own benefit than that of its customers.

Can’t a closed device be a good thing?

To some extent, yes. At the very least, a closed system can provide an appealing simplicity, especially for those who approach computers with trepidation. I acknowledged this in my previous column. However, I have recently read several articles that, in my view, assert this view too strongly — ignoring the negatives. One eloquent example was in Macworld, where Dan Moren wrote: 

“For Apple, it’s not about killing off tinkerers, but ensuring that not everybody who wants to use a computer has to be a tinkerer…Some complain that Apple keeps locking out the jailbreakers with every revision of the iPhone OS, but the key point there is that the jailbreakers keep finding a way in…The iPad won’t kill the computer any more than the graphical user interface did away with the command line (it’s still there, remember?), but it is Apple saying once again that there’s a better way.”

The problem is that Dan (as well as others taking a similar position; I don’t mean to single out Dan here) gives Apple too much of a free pass.

First, while Dan appears to admit to the value of jailbreaking, he refuses to fault Apple for attempting to prevent anyone from doing it. While he accurately asserts that jailbreakers so far “keep finding a way in,” this largely ignores the fact that it has gotten progressively more and more difficult to do so — thanks to Apple’s efforts to block it. There is a reasonable expectation that it may well be impossible to jailbreak the next iteration of iPhone OS devices (as I discuss here). Even now, many people I know who have expressed an interest in jailbreaking refuse even to try it because they are fearful of the difficulties and potential consequences. Jailbreaking is not the solution of tinkerers. The solution is for Apple to stop doing what makes jailbreaking a necessity for tinkerers. Or, at the very least, stop trying to completely block jailbreaking, while characterizing it as a source of “instability, disruption of services, and compromised security.”

Second, Dan presents the opposing positions as either-or extremes, either an open Mac OS X or a closed iPhone OS. This is not the case. It would be a relatively simple matter, for example, to maintain the iPhone OS pretty much as it is, with all of the advantages that Dan espouses — but still allow those who wish to access the innards of the iPhone OS or run applications not in the App Store, to do so. That’s essentially what happens when you jailbreak your iPhone. Dan notes that the command line is still in iPhone OS. What he doesn’t say is that, unlike with Mac OS X, Apple has done its absolute best to prevent anyone from accessing it. Actually, for Apple, I think it is about killing off tinkerers.

Yes, I know. Many iPhone users may well reply: “Hey, we don’t care about UNIX or Library folders. We’re happy not to have to bother with them on an iPhone.” I am not suggesting that you should need to bother with these things. But there are compelling reasons for everyone to care about whether or not these things can be accessed by anyone (as I detail in one of the articles I already cited above).

In the end, I don’t see Apple benevolently showing us a “better way.” The iPhone OS has its advantages. But there’s an unnecessary price that Apple makes you pay for them. Ignoring this fact does not make it go away.

Brave New World 

I find it especially ironic that — while Apple has succeeded in implementing a level of control over the iPhone OS that would have seemed unimaginable back in 1984 — so many people not only accept this control but applaud its virtues.

The irony is that back in 1984, the Super Bowl ad for the original Mac used a 1984 metaphor, heralding a Macintosh that would break the chains of the Big Brother oppressor. Here in 2010, it is Apple that might be viewed as the oppressor (yes, I am taking dramatic license to exaggerate here, but bear with me). Not exactly as a Big Brother, but more like what Neil Postman wrote in the forward to Amusing Ourselves to Death:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

No, I don’t believe the iPad or iPhone will “ruin us.” Hardly! But I do believe there’s a message here worth contemplating.

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16 Comments Leave Your Own

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Oh Ted, now you’ve done it… I’m gonna make a run for that rock over there. Cover me.

joepitt

The recent iMac models come with a wireless keyboard and wireless mouse. The computer is affixed to its stand. What if they add the touch screen functionality? You can work at your desk - with keyboard and mouse. Or just pick up the computer and go with it and use it anywhere via touch.

JonGl

Actually, I fear it goes much deeper than this. Remember Microsoft? It ingratiated onto almost every desktop. It became the gate-keeper to everything that took place on the computer. They controlled the whole widget. Is this not what Apple is doing? Via iTunes, the OS and their hardware, they are quickly coming to the point of controlling the whole widget—and I’m not just talking the desktop computer—but your entertainment, your books, your phone as well… While I’m sure that they “mean well” (whatever that may mean), the truth is, this is what seems to be coming. I don’t know, but I’m not sure I want to see the future if this is it. And I’ve been an exclusive Mac user since ‘93, and nearly-so since ‘87 (my first three computers were pre-Windows DOS-boxes).

Oh, and yes, for the sake of a disclaimer, I do own an iPhone—jailbroken. wink Oh, and besides the real Macs in my home, I have an MSI Wind “Mac Nano”

-Jon

Ted Landau

Just today…Apple demands that Stanza remove USB support from its app (see this TechCrunch article and this Macworld one).

Regardless of the justifications in terms of Apple’s public API’s, it’s hard to see how keeping this restriction, rather than offering the needed API, helps anyone but Apple.

John

.0001% care about openness. My mother, your mother, the old guy across the street, your Uncle Buck, and my 8 year old daughter have no idea what you are even talking about….. or even care.

All they care about is does it work? And do I have to install virus software on it?

I’ve worked at Best Buy for 2 years selling computers to the most ignorant people on the planet. Trust me, they don’t care. And this past Christmas I sold more Macs than PC’s. You tell me what they think is better?

jimstead

I don’t know or care about the intimate details of how my Civic Hybrid works, or my refrigerator, or furnace, or the internals of my microwave oven. Most of these things I can delve into as a hobbyist (though in some cases it may take a crowbar to get in there) or as a professional.

You can assume that computers are following the trajectory of every other important technology, and that Apple is in front of most implementing it. At one time you needed to be something of an electrician to have power in your house, and something of a mechanic to operate a car. Those days are over.

Jim

Steve W

You read the wrong books. To get a clearer picture of what is going on at Apple, read “The Fountainhead”.

Ted Landau

...have no idea what you are even talking about?.. or even care.

At one time you needed to be something of an electrician to have power in your house, and something of a mechanic to operate a car. Those days are over.

Yup. You both have valid points. I did try to address this in the article, especially where I say “This may be an unstoppable trend…”

However, I still believe there is more going on here. You may not care to know how your CD player works. But I doubt you would want Sony or Panasonic to be in total control of what CDs you can play, arbitrarily censoring ones that it does not approve, etc. etc.

Also, it’s not just openess vs. closed in terms of access to “under the hood” stuff. It’s the useful things that Apple’s approach prevents you from doing, such as with file sharing. See almost any of the other articles of mine that I cited for examples.

rjackb

Like others, I think that the iPad is the first glimpse of the future of computing. You mention file sharing but why should people be dealing with files directly at all? There is no good reason. In fact, it seems like such a 90’s or 80’s or 70’s or even 60’s approach to computing. There are other ways to share things than explicitly via files.

I think your worries about Apple controlling what you can or cannot do (presumably through their app approval process) are overblown. That will eventually work itself out.

iJack

“Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression.”

“In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us.”

I don’t think Postman - and by extension, you - understand Orwell, or 1984 at all.  To say, or to quote Postman saying, “Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression,” is just rubbish.  He was an idealistic Fabian Socialist, who wrote a simple warning that any idealism turned institution, can run amok.  It isn’t Pilgrims Progress, for Pete’s sake.

You were really stretching to find the irony and you missed.  Better you should have avoided the temptation.

Huxley, on the other hand was much closer to describing your unease with where Apple appears to be leading us - a dystopia of cheaply manufactured luxury, and the attendant false sense of well-being.

daemon

.0001% care about openness. My mother, your mother, the old guy across the street, your Uncle Buck, and my 8 year old daughter have no idea what you are even talking about?.. or even care.

My mother cares a great deal about openness. So when are you ditching your MacBooks and iMacs for the iPad exclusively?

daemon

You mention file sharing but why should people be dealing with files directly at all? There is no good reason.

LoL! You show your complete lack of intelligence with that statement! Take a look at your address bar, that’s a directory! Every single link is a file, your entire web experience is brought to you by a program that allows you to directly manipulate files in a graphical context!

jecrawford

John

I agree whole heartedly with you.

As someone who welcomed the Mac’s GUI ? and bought the original Mac 512K ? I have always “just done” things with my computers. As someone employed in the IT industry, I enjoyed knowing about the internals but only from an admirational stand point. As I have moved from my 50s to my 60s and now into my 70s, I am less and less interested in “jailbreaking” etc., and I just want things to work. And I now belong to an increasingly large, if somewhat aged, slice of the UK’s population which wants to use computing easily, simply and protected as far as possible from malware.

Jobs usually says something like “We try to make insanely great products” for the consumer. Apple’s success is inevitable if he keeps identifying what we didn’t know we needed, and then producing it with such great attention to detail and finish.

Ted, if rape is inevitable, just lie back and enjoy it.

Regards from Another John

Disclosure: I own some small parcels of AAPL equity.

wab95

Ted,

As usual, you raise good, thought-provoking points. I am not a programmer or IT professional, so I have a slightly different take principally as a consumer (both private and in business).

What seems to be missing from your argument is a broader context.

The consumer’s explicit expectation of the computing experience is enhanced productivity. Implicitly, it is enhanced productivity without loss of security. The goal of industry is to deliver on that expectation. This requires a different set of practices in 2010 than in 1984, and a loss of certain personal liberties that might have existed 10 years ago, like the ability to manipulate how a device and its software work. 

This appears, at least to me, to be a trend across the computer/info-tech industry, and applies to other industries under security threats as well.

Think ‘airlines’, and how the industry has had to change in order to preserve the explicit goal of getting from point to point, and the implicit goal of doing so safely. 

As with air travel, if the individual’s liberty to manipulate their computing device jeopardises not only their safety, but possibly that of others (witness the recent attacks on jail-broken iPhones), restricting that freedom may be necessary in order to ensure secure productivity, even if specialised clients are inconvenienced.

Is this Orwellian evil? Not from a consumer’s perspective. Are there other reasons why industry might restrict those liberties? Perhaps. I concede that there are other elements to your argument. But making that case when the majority of consumers are seeing robust productivity safely obtained will be a hard sell.

Janet Tokerud

As long as the tools of giant tech companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft are viewed as must-haves, it is unlikely that they won’t cross the line from time to time exploiting their market position to further their agendas. Your column and others plus tweets and comments can help keep these 100 lb gorillas in check. Thanks for making a good argument and raising a legitimate alarm. I would like the companies to practice extreme tranparency when taking away our privacy or limiting choice (The App store approval process, Apple TV iTunes only for examples). I’m not satisfied with the recent Google response to it’s overstepping with Buzz, but at least the addressed criticism and removed the most offensive aspects. Without a public outcry, Buzz would trample on privacy as Google saw fit. Facebook is another offender I would love to smack down. Keep it up, Ted!

DCYorke

And what about my microwave and refrigerator? Isn’t dangerous for GE to be the gatekeeper of my popcorn button!

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