The iPad’s Brave New World

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.