When to Worry About Apple’s Control Over the iPad

When does control cross over the line from certifying reliability to being an intrusive burden? That question crossed my mind Monday morning when I was listening to an NPR story about the iPad. Part of the story involved interviews with iPad owners, and as I was listening to people talk about how they were already using their devices, I realized…well…a number of things (to give credit where it is due, our Monday morning TMO staff meeting helped clarify some of them).

First, however, let’s look at the background that frames my thoughts today.

I’ve been a big fan of the iPad since I accurately predicted that Apple would address the netbook market with a device I was calling an iPod super touch (I never get tired of crowing about that). That hasn’t changed now that it’s shipping, and I am quite confident that the iPad is going to be a paradigm shifter, for good and for ill.

In particular, it’s going to change the way many, many people consume their portion of the Interwebs, especially at home, and it’s here where my lead-off question is most important. So, while I am sure the iPad is going to find many vertical markets that adopt it, not to mention the juggernaut I think it will become in the education market, the issue of Apple’s control over the device is a non-issue for those markets.

Just like it is with the iPhone. I’ve been listening to people whinge about Apple’s control over the iPhone and the demands (from a tiny portion of the market - super nerds) that the company open it up for non App Store apps for years now. I’ve never had one ounce of empathy or sympathy for such complaints.

If you want to be able to install any ol’ piece of crap app on your smartphone, or if viewing Flash content is that important to you, go slum it on an Android device or something from Palm, etc., and enjoy your inferior experience. I’ll take the iPhone experience any day.

Apple’s control over the iPhone and the App Store helps ensure that the device works, and it all but guarantees that any app I install on it is going to be free of virii, trojan horses, and other troublesome nonsense. To me, those two things far outweigh any possible annoyance at not being able to install some app or another, and not being able to view all that crappy Flash content out there.

Why, you may ask? Because it’s a phone!!

I want my phone to work. Always. Every time. Yes, I want to be able to surf the Internet and use all those cool apps, but the reality for me is that the vast majority of my Internet consumption is going to be done on my main computer, which in my case is a Mac Pro. The iPhone’s smart abilities make it a killer phone - it’s phone abilities do not make it a killer computer.

So to me, I was, and am, happy to trade Apple’s control for a device that will always work. I’ve yet to come across anything I’ve wanted from the App Store that wasn’t there, save perhaps clients for the major online poker sites, and even there it hasn’t mattered to me - the iPhone is awesome.

Up until Monday morning, the same sort of thought process applied to the iPad in my mind. Yes, Apple has just as much control over the iPad, but again it has been, and is, a tradeoff that sat well with me. Flash? Who cares? Apple controls the apps? So what?

I think the key moment came when some analyst said in that NPR story noted above that many people are likely to make the iPad their main computer in the future. Whether that will be the case is certainly up for debate, but I think there is a 100% chance that the iPad will become the main way that many users consume most of their Internet content in their homes.

From ebooks, to newspapers, to magazines, to movies and TV, to e-mail, to Web surfing…Many people are going to do the vast majority of these activities on their iPad in the not-too-distant future.

It’s one thing for a single company to have so much control over a smartphone (see my arguments above), but I have some concern about that being the case for a device that is the main conduit for information for a not insignificant number of people.

Don’t mistake that to mean that I think the iPad is bad or that I don’t want one - I think it’s awesome and I am annoyed that I have to wait for the 3G-equipped units to ship before I can get one (someone at TMO needs a 3G unit for testing, and every other staff member already has the WiFi-only model, so guess who gets to wait? I know, I lead a hard life…).

But I’ve always thought of the iPad as an extension of my computing world, not a replacement or substitute, just like the iPhone’s smartphone capabilities. So again, those tradeoffs involved in Apple’s control are a no-brainer to me.

I guess what I’m trying to express in this column is little more than worrying about the iPad being so good at being an iPad that many people begin relying on it as their main conduit to the Internet. No one company or government should have the kind of control over such a main conduit as Apple has over the iPad, at least in its current iteration.

Apple’s ban on political apps, on porn apps, on obscenity and profanity, on apps that allow you to extend your device in ways that don’t fit into Apple’s game plan (think Google Voice or tethering)…these are serious issues if the iPad becomes the de facto computer of your house. Yes, you can access most of those things through Safari on the iPad, but you can’t access Firefox, Internet Explorer or Chrome, so that’s no real counter argument.

And in the long run, maybe it’s just those sorts of things that will keep the iPad from becoming the computer in most houses. Maybe Apple’s control will keep it a great device that just works, but one that is just one of the ways you get your Interwebs fix.

If that’s the case, there’s nothing to be concerned about. If not, however, I think that we should all re-examine just how much control we’ll let any one company have over our computing lives.