The iPad: Your Shiny Consumer Straitjacket

The iPad is here, and many people love it. But, uniquely for Apple, some fans and techies aren't impressed enough to overlook that the iPad is probably the most restricted computing device to hit the personal computing market in years. Thanks to the iPad and the fourth-generation iPhone operating system, we may be approaching a new era of a closed Internet.

Put aside the fact that you can’t customize the hardware (BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow has more on that). The iPad and the iPhone are becoming the primary entry ramps to the Internet for millions, usually via installed apps (while you can easily access the Internet via a web browser, the apps are where the magic happens, and the interface is designed to steer users to them). And with Apple, the content to which we have access via these applications is approved by Apple and its leadership (that is, Steve Jobs).

Lately, this gatekeeping model has led to more than a few app casualties, suggesting that Apple's approval process motto is becoming “when in doubt, reject.” This policy has resulted in a growing backlash from users, developers and producers.

The issue comes down to the company’s desire to control everything that gets installed on its devices — from the way developers create software, to not allowing Flash anywhere near the things, to rejecting apps from Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonists.

You read that last bit right: Editorial cartoonist Mark Fiore, whose satires of public figures made him the first online-only journalist to win a Pulitzer, wants to take his work to every online platform he can, including devices like the iPhone and the iPad.

But Apple rejected his iPhone app, claiming that since his work “ridicules public figures,” it violates Apple’s developer license agreement.

If a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, who legitimately satirizes the rich and famous, can’t get his app approved by Apple, something is definitely wrong in Cupertino. Would Mark Twain have been too edgy for Apple as well?

The issue is a delicate one: Apple runs its app store and produces devices as it sees fit. The model is enormously successful. Given the proprietary nature of its platform, the argument goes, Apple should have the freedom to approve or reject what it will.

But it's not so simple. Despite sharing an operating system with the iPhone, the iPad is actually a hyper-user-friendly computer; it's not a mobile device at all (some have compared it to a super-portable TV). But this new computer, which is meant to compete with netbooks and other small laptops, is crippled in the same way the iPhone is crippled: only Apple-approved software can be installed on it.

Imagine if this was the case with your Macbook or your Lenovo.

Given that the iPad and the iPhone are phenomenally crippled devices, yet serve as the potential gateway for millions who want to get online, at what point does Apple have a responsibility to provide a more open, non-discriminatory platform?

David Weinberger, one of the first theorists of the web, recently took up the issue (his use of “appliances” comes from another original theorist, Jonathan Zittrain):

The danger is that as cellphones become mobile Internet devices, and as iPods become mobile computing platforms, our new generation of computing devices will be appliances open only at the forbearance of their creators. Those creators may be relatively benevolent, but the question isn't whether this device or that creator is open. It’s what the future of the Internet and of computers will look like. If appliances become the dominant way of interacting with the Net (and thus how we interact with one another), then no matter how loosely the device creators hold the reins, we are accepting the bit in our mouths. If appliances become the default, then the market for challenging, risky, disruptive, subversive app development is in danger of drying up.

The web has transformed millions of us into active participants in the media, yet Apple is forcing us back into a consumer straitjacket. If this trend continues, future devices may become glorified entertainment consumption devices like the iPad, rather than open and innovative devices like Macbook Pros.

Right now, of course, consumers aren’t limited to iPhones to access the mobile Internet, or to iPads to consume the media. Google’s Android platform is gaining momentum, and its open-source approach to devices and software is a welcome antidote to the Apple model. But given Apple’s growing marketshare (and mindshare), and its ability to produce genuinely exciting hardware, we should be concerned about its behavior before it becomes the primary filter through which most of us access the web.

This doesn’t mean we should be advocating for the FCC or Congress to look into Apple — not at all. Instead, Apple needs to voluntarily take up the idea and practice of what Zittrain and others call “generativity” — users adapting open devices and platforms for purposes far beyond the vision of their original creators. Come to think of it, that’s kind of how the Internet took off…

Some, like Farhad Manjoo and his Cell Phone Bill of Rights, are voicing consumer opposition to these and other practices in the wireless industry. We need to keep the pressure on by voting with our dollars and pressuring them with public campaigns.

The public must make it clear to Apple that with great market share comes great responsibility. As for me, I’m about ready to ditch my iPhone and jump on the Android wagon.