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.