Is the iPad the harbinger of doom for personal computing?

In 2002, there was a lot of fear of Microsoft’s trusted computing platform, Palladium. The idea was that Microsoft was going to add new security to computers that was enforced in the hardware which would put an end to viruses and some other security problems but would also fundamentally change the relationship between computers and their users. Your computer would no longer be fully under your control, nor would it be functionally anonymous. Steven Levy’s original article hyping Palladium explains the purported benefits, then Ross Anderson explained what was scary about it.

In the end, Palladium was a total failure. It never went anywhere. But people at the time reacted very strongly when the traditional idea of the general purpose personal computer was threatened. People were afraid that if Palladium were implemented, the PC maker, application developers, and media companies would all be able to exert control over your experience.

Now we turn to Apple’s iPad. It’s just an iPod Touch with a big screen, but that’s all that many people need from a computer. You can use it to surf the Web, read email, listen to music, watch video, or compose documents. That’s the personal computer use case for many people. And I think a lot of people are going to buy them.

The fundamental difference between a Mac and an iPhone is that I can run any software I want on my Mac. I can buy it on a DVD, I can download it from the Internet, or I can compile it myself. I can get rid of OS X and install another operating system. The Mac is a general purpose computer in the classic sense. The iPhone is not.

Apple decides which software I can run on my iPhone. Apple provides the only means by which I can get it. The platform is for all intents and purposes, closed, and the hardware is closed as well. Sure, the iPhone is great to use, but the price of using it is that you’re rewarding Apple’s choice to bet on closed platforms.

What bothers me is that in terms of openness, the iPad is the same as the iPhone, but in terms of form factor, the iPad is essentially a general purpose computer. So it strikes me as a sort of Trojan horse that acculturates users to closed platforms as a viable alternative to open platforms, and not just when it comes to phones (which are closed pretty much across the board). The question we must ask ourselves as computer users is whether the tradeoff in freedom we make to enjoy Apple’s superior user experience is worth it.

The Setup just published an interview with free software pioneer Richard Stallman about the tools he uses. He uses a crappy Chinese netbook as his only computer:

I am using a Lemote Yeelong, a netbook with a Loongson chip and a 9-inch display. This is my only computer, and I use it all the time. I chose it because I can run it with 100% free software even at the BIOS level.

If Apple is really successful, it’s likely that other companies will be more emboldened to forsake openness as well. The catch is that customers won’t accept the sudden closing of a previously open platform, that’s one of the reasons Palladium failed. But Apple has shown that users will accept most anything in an entirely new platform as long as it offers users the experience they want.

I think that it’s a real possibility that in 10 years, general purpose computers will be seen as being strictly for developers and hobbyists. The descendants of the iPhone and iPad and their competitors will rule the consumer market and people will embrace the closed nature of these platforms for the same reason that Steve Levy hyped Palladium almost 10 years ago — because what you get for trading off freedom is reduced risk. There will be few (if any) viruses, and applications will “just work.”

General purpose computing is too complicated for most people anyway, and the iPad’s descendants along with similar competing products from other companies will offer an enticing alternative. So I see the death of the traditional, open personal computer as a likely occurrence.

Will closed personal computing matter?

The other question that arises for me is whether, in the the long term, the computer you hold in your hand really matters. If all of the applications we use run on other people’s Web servers, and all of our data lives in the cloud, then the fact that our computers are closed appliances we use to get to the Web isn’t such a big deal.

When you look at the performance curve for JavaScript, it does not seem unreasonable to me to imagine that one day in the not too distant future there will be no difference in performance between desktop applications and applications running in the browser. Apple has done a lot to make it possible to build Web applications that are nearly indistinguishable from iPhone applications. It seems likely that every platform vendor will be following their lead, so for most users it won’t matter whether they launch an application by clicking on an icon or by choosing a bookmark in their browser. Indeed, on the iPhone you can already assign icons to Web sites as though they are full-fledged applications.

I foresee an era where people who really care about computing freedom use whatever closed personal computer is available, but run their open source applications on a virtual machine in the cloud somewhere running an open source operating system. Their data is stored in some other location, perhaps in encrypted format so that the fact that it’s not in their physical control matters less. It’s not quite the same as the traditional definition of a “personal computer” but it’s not any less free than what we have now, and it provides the benefit of being accessible from anywhere with an Internet connection.

A future where applications and data in the cloud are more our own than the computers on our desks seems bizarre, but I can see things playing out that way.

For more on the threat to open computing posed by the iPhone platform, check out this piece from Create Digital Music.

31 thoughts on “Is the iPad the harbinger of doom for personal computing?

  1. I completely agree that most people don’t need or want general computing. They want something that works like a TV. Full screen apps, doing one thing at a time. Large clear interfaces. That’s how you get things done – without training, without geekery, and with pleasure.

    Most people are not “power users”. Its “power users” like us that bemoan this kind of stuff.

    Nobody cares that you can’t install your own apps into your TV set. I’ve not heard the masses demanding this feature.

    The closed nature of the platform does not worry me. I don’t see it as particularly closed. Anyone can get the SDK etc, anyone can try to develop an app. It is only the distribution that is filtered, and that seems to be a lot better. That only matters if you want to pursue software commercially anyway.

    You can even write your own app and deploy it to your own phones for minimal cost (given that they supply the tools etc).

    Free software isn’t free – people have spent a lot of their time creating it. I’m of the Apple view that free software – great. However for users to really value your software, they need to literally buy into it to some degree. If they won’t pay evemn £0.59, it isn’t good enough.

  2. Fascinating stuff. It strikes me that the iPad and Chrome OS are in much the same boat here – and they’re both interesting to me, because they’re web browsers that end users can’t break. I loved your line about general purpose computing being too complicated for most people anyway.

  3. Since the early days of computing, Apple machinery has effectively been a closed platform anyway, as far as PC users are concerned. What seems to be a problem is that Apple are perceived to be gaining a larger share of the market after their success with the iPlayer. This is not another iPlayer nor will Apple become as big as IBM. I dont see the issue.

  4. Thanks for the well-framed thoughts. I had similar feelings last night, especially after Jesse Vincent’s observation that this device is completely locked down, to the extent that Apple chose to use a physically incompatible SIM.

    On the other hand, so long as Apple patents don’t stubbornly prevent us from getting true “multi-touch” interaction experiences in non-Apple devices for another decade, we may have viable alternatives. I hold out hope for Android and Chrome OS as a middle ground, and maybe an approach of “filtered by default, open if you want” isn’t so bad, especially when the web-based future is taken into account.

    It is incredibly funny, though, that this device is being hailed as a saviour of the publishing industry. Unless the presumption is that all reading henceforth will occur only on protected devices (the web, in this case, is an unprotected device), I don’t see how the iPad changes anything. At most, it gives newspapers and publishers a 5- to 10-year reprieve from having to figure out what they’re really going to do.

  5. Hm.

    • I’m not entirely convinced that Palladium has failed. The name is certainly gone. But the Trusted Platform module on which the secure system was supposed to be built is currently embedded in just about every Intel chip, so the functionality is there to be used.

    • The iPad arguably represents the next step in the convergence between the mobile phone world (walled garden, total vendor control of applications) and the personal computer world (open platform, user choice of applications). But it’s worth remembering that very many people have both an iPhone and a Windows-based personal computer; Apple’s share of the desktop/laptop market is still not that big. And for all that people complain about spam, viruses, etc., their response is typically not to throw out their computer.

    • I think it’s right to say that there’s a distinct split forming in the market between consumers who want their computers to “just work” and stop annoying them with security risks, etc. (particularly anyone who’s had the contents of their bank account stolen that way) and those who need an open platform, but it would be interesting to compare the raw numbers of the latter now with the numbers of people who, say, had computers in the early 1990s. I bet there are still more people using open-platform machines now than there were early adopters then. The fact that many more people as a percentage of the computing population use their machines as “black boxes” may not matter that much, because…

    • The key issue, ISTM, if computers become closed to their users is where the next generation of computer scientists will come from. We have already lost some of what has made scientists and engineers in the past: experimentation with building things as children – tinkering with soldering irons and circuit boards, playing with chemistry sets, doing real science in school instead of watching videos about it. Kids who grow up with computers whose programmable characteristics are hidden and locked away from them are losing the hands-on learning element of yet another scientific discipline.

    wg

  6. I think there is great potential for the iPad to replace traditional computers for casual computer users, and that’s actually a GOOD thing: these are users who have no idea what “closed” or “open” means. They just want something that works and that they can figure out. Really, many probably don’t actual want a computer, per se, at all. They just want a device that gets them on the web, lets them check email, listen to music, watch videos, play games, (maybe) read books, and do some basic document editing. Sounds like they don’t want a computer at all — they want an iPad!

    Personal computers will not go away: programmers, professionals, and power users will always need them. What this really represents, to me, is — finally — the arrival of a real alternative device for people who never really wanted a computer in the first place.

    The one device that’s doomed, though, is one I praised in my blog a couple months back: the litl.

  7. I think your analysis is spot on. Funny, I made the transition from MS to Apple a decade ago exactly because the future at MS seemed closed (activation, proprietary data formats etc.). Apple at the time, with its open source foundation OS, Apache etc. seemed the white knight: the good bits of Linux, but prettier and with better usability.

    But I suspected my choice would last for one decade, two max.

    The pad is a trojan in the sense hardly anyone realises what he is getting into: a one way dead end street. But it is a pretty street with a very nice cafe: Steve’s.

    As long as you do not mind drinking just Steve’s Latte, it is a perfect world.

  8. There’s a really interesting book on this idea: “The Future of the Internet and how to stop it”

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0300151241?ie=UTF8&tag=takenbyninja-21&linkCode=as2&camp=1634&creative=19450&creativeASIN=0300151241

    Nevertheless, provided there is browser access I don’t think this is going to be a problem. The future of Apps is through the browser not installing it onto your machine. Case in point Google cirumvented the iPhone app review by making its Voice app accessible via the browser.

  9. Even if more companies “follow” Apple to completely closed system, doesn’t that just create a market opportunity? Also, the assumption that we’ll always run our software on local devices may only be true for so long.

    I think there will always be cracks in the system though. Apple can’t fully lock down the system and maintain that UX (yet at least). I’m not sure it’s possible. I know that’s a risk many are not willing to take though.

    The competition needs to step up the plate though. The market needs to provide some checks on power.

  10. It’s true that users will accept anything — for a time. But as soon as you make the decision to be closed, you become the target, the kid on the block that everybody wants to beat up. You’d better be 110% resistant to disruption. Any closed ecosystem is only closed for a limited time. The only real question is how long that time will last.

  11. game systems have trained users to accept the closed ecosystem since atari. they all connect to the internet now too and can download movies etc.

  12. I considered adding something about game machines as well but I didn’t want to make the piece any longer than it already was.

  13. Apple’s tactics would be decried if Microsoft did them because MS is in a monopoly position in the product space of PC OSes and PC Office Applications. Apple is still under ten percent market share. Sure, Apple has a monopoly on Mac OS and iPhones, but not in the OS or cell phone marketplaces. If Apple makes a mis-step, a competitor should arise to do a better job for the customers and developers. If that does not happen, then who is to blame? Not Apple. It will be that competitor who did not act, or the customers and developers who did not care to choose an alternative.

    So I see the point you’re making, but I don’t see it as a problem. I see it as a condition to monitor. If certain things happen, you may respond with an outcry or with a bold business move. If you are sure that Apple will ignore the outcry, then I would recommend being ready for the bold business.

    People used to wash their clothes by hand in the river. Now (around here, anyway) there are automatic washing and drying machines. Do I bemoan my constraint to only a the few wash and dry settings on those devices? No, because I pour in detergent and push the ON button and my clothes get clean. That’s where Apple is headed with iPad™. I believe that most people will prefer that, if Apple does it right. Yet, there will always be nerds who want to “go down to the river” to write their own software and/or be developers for the devices that “everyone” uses. I also think that, properly monitored and shepherded, companies like Apple and Google and Microsoft will keep a variety of options available to us.

  14. There is also the possibility that closed systems like the iPad are the start to fragmenting the internet into a series of private networks with exclusive content and exclusive device access. Like XBox Live.

  15. Honestly, I despise this thing with a passion I was not aware I could have towards an inanimate object. I am incredibly surprised by that, but its also informed by my own use of computers, and a fear (and thats all it is at this stage – a fear) that my way of using computers is going to be taken away from me.

    I have thought about the situation that Wendy brought up – in a future where this type of device is all that is used, where will the next generation of programmers etc come from? If you take that to its logical extreme, our society could be in deep trouble – we rely on computers, whether we realise it or not, in just about every single facet of our lives and if no one is able to program these computers, or fix them when they are broken, what then?

  16. I don’t really see how the XBOX is fragmenting the Internet. There is no concept of the web on the XBOX (yet). You get specific internet apps (Last.fm, Facebook, Netflix, and Twitter), but only those apps. You can access all of those from (almost) anywhere else. None of them are exclusive to XBOX.

  17. The washing machine analogy is not quite right. Its more like if you had a clothes washing machine that could be easily modified to watch dishes as well, but every time you tried to stick a plate in there Steve Jobs would pop out and slap the plate out of hand.

  18. doesn’t all this just mean that the computer is now a mass product? i mean the car is a closed platform, the TV is a closed platform … every consumer good is more or less a closed platform. the reason being increased safety and security, and guaranteed performance levels for the masses. yes a guy like stallman likes the openness of his device, but he has to be knowledgeable to run it and to keep it running. most people don’t want that … i would say that limited openness is the reason computers are now in everyones home (and pocket) and that the network effect far out benefits a loss in platform openness.

  19. Lock down on consumer devices? The iPhone and ipad won’t be the only devices I use. If my desktop ever gets locked down like iPhone os, I will be shifting platforms. The thing that makes that possible is open data formats so I can use my data on multiple platforms. I use OpenOffice as then I have the same app suite on my Linux laptop, mac desktop and my wifes windows pc. Where ipone and I pad excell will be the ease of use and just works nature. I’m currently in bed tapping away on my iPhone to post a comment on a website. To do this with my laptop I have to make sure it’s charged, I only get 3 hrs out of it’s battery. It would be noiser as the fan would be keeping my wife awake, I would have to be sitting up and tapping away ona noisy mechanical keyboard etc. The phone means I can check my mail, read the days news all before even getting up to face the day. Thaws mobile devices will change the world, but I don’t see them ever replacing full desktops or laptops for everything for a while.

  20. There’s another, related issue with this closed system: file sharing. Sharing not just from iPad to desktop, but iPad to iPad and app to app on the iPad.

    The iPad isn’t a complete general purpose machine. You need another computer to synch it to. With only up to 64GB of space, there’s no way for it to hold all the media and content on the iPad itself. Will iTunes be used to sync everything? Hope not

    Next is sharing files from iPad to iPad. Now on the iPhone, you don’t create content, you consume it. It’s form factor doesn’t lend itself for anything more than an email or Twitter update. Photos get uploaded or synced. With the iPad, its form factor does lend itself to creating content other than just an email – and with no camera, well… With companies like the Omni Group saying they’ll port their apps to the iPad. Right there you have file creation. If you and your colleague both have iPads, you’re working on a presentation in iWork… How do you get the file back and forth to each other? Right now it seems that the answer is email. I’ve read that Apple will include access to a shared network drive or up to MobileMe. Is that the best answer?

    Then there’s sharing of files from app to app. From what I’ve read, apps store the files they create within themselves. Delete the app, the files go with it. But what about the ability to open a file created from one app in another app? I’ve no doubt there will be text editing apps that will become available for the iPad. Will we have to transfer a file up to cloud storage just to be able to access it from different apps?

    I think this aspect of the iPad OS hasn’t been fully addressed and is compounded by the nature of the closed system.

    Another thing. Will Apple allow apps that compete with their own? Will they allow another mail app for the iPad? They’ve already denied Google their app for duplication of functionality.

  21. ‘Nobody cares that you can’t install your own apps into your TV set.’

    But a number of people care about DVD regional encoding – including purchasing players which have ‘lacked’ that feature in the past.

  22. Pretty awful to turn +1Ghz, potentially multi-core machines with gigs of memory into nothing more than dumb terminals.

    It is a sign of the consumer culture we live in where businesses feel so scared that they can’t let anyone have the chance to do anything they haven’t predicted.

    This is the opposite of innovation.

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