I. iPad or Computing Antichrist?

The iPad will lead to the crumbling of computing as we currently know it. Or so you would believe if you take stock in any of the many pieces written in the last 2 months that decry the closed distribution approach taken by Apple’s App Store.

The argument goes like this: If the iPad is a general computing device that is likely to achieve significant success in the marketplace, its users should be wary of Apple holding so much control over the software users are allowed to run. If the closed model is successful, it will stop the intrigued users from exploring its inner details which will lead to an incurious generation. This generation will grow up not able to comprehend the sensation of hacking their devices and will subsequently not be driven to write their own programs. The primary problem is that users are unable to run arbitrary programs and this will gradually result in fewer and fewer capable programmers.

II. Tinkerer’s Sunrise.

I believe the iPad will be important in the mainstream due to its emphasis on making complex interfaces approachable. For evidence of this one only needs to observe its very similar predecessor, the iPhone, which has resulted in a dramatic industry shift. The iPhone is enjoyed by people of all ages with wide technical backgrounds. Its reception has been phenomenal. A nine year old successfully submitted an application that consistently entertains my very young relatives. The well-implemented touch interface is important because of how critical touch is to human nature. Although devices with glass screens will never replace human touch, when built well they can lead to very powerful interactions.

For me, tinkering was a byproduct of my fascination with technology. I wanted to understand the magic behind the machine. The more people who are introduced to this fascination, the more tinkerers there will be. The stronger the magic, the more curious each hacker will become.

But, what if all of these curious users are blocked by the restrictive policies of the App Store? Technology is like a genie that cannot be rebottled. Once an idea or product has been developed it is never forgotten. The existence of an iPad or any closed system doesn’t erase the beautifully open systems such as the web, Wikipedia, or free software projects. Book burning will always fail. Thus, for anyone who desires a more open system, alternatives such as Android, Chrome OS, or NanoNote will be available to fill the gap. Even if the iPad achieves critical mass and makes competition difficult, Apple has proven with the Macintosh, it is possible to run a very effective business by offering the right features to more demanding customers. For users who are stuck with or settle on the iPad (as well as those who embrace it heartily) there is yet another solution.

The current pricing structure is shown below:

Standard Prices Table

Tinkerers can achieve a greater degree of access by subscribing to the iPhone Developer program for $99 and receiving a code signing certificate. With the certificate they can run arbitrary code and open source software. This expands the iPad pricing rubric as follows.

Increased Prices Table

I always like finding a better way to solve problems, and suspect there are others out there that desire the ability to install 3rd party programs. What stops me from banding together with 98 friends for $1 each to diminish the cost of the iPhone Developer Program? Nothing. So now the “tinkerer tax” has dropped from $99 per person to only $1, revealing the final pricing rubric.

Barely Increased Prices Table

Hardly a detriment beyond the base price of the iPad itself. There is an extra hassle – but nobody making the loss of freedom claim is stating that alternative methods would compete with the App Store in terms of ease‑of‑use.

III. Tinkerer’s Sunset.

I had hoped to maintain a positive outlook across the entire piece, but there are still some critical shortcomings that dampen my optimism.

Sections 7.1-3 of the iPhone SDK agreement, as revealed by the EFF, are a particularly damning argument against Apple’s virtue. The App Store as the only allowable means of distribution means Apple controls, with an iron fist, all programs a user can legitimately execute. Game consoles have long followed a similar standard without such a public outcry, but it feels like the iPad is supposed to surpass being just a games or multimedia console.

The recurring cost of the iPhone Developer Portal may also be prohibitive to many individuals who only want the ability to install non-approved apps.

The technical ability to install 3rd party software through the personal developer certificate does little to assuage the fears of developers who are worried their application may be rejected by Apple. In my mind, the biggest problem with the current setup is that creative developers will skip the chance at an opportunity due to the distribution policies. Without a sizable base of users with their own certificates, and especially with the questionable legality of distribution, it is infeasible for developers to take significant risk on serious innovations.

IV. Final First-Thoughts.

As part of a technology entrepreneurship class we investigated the video game markets of the last few decades. As I mentioned earlier, the video game analogy breaks down at the point the iPad is declared a general computing device, but one historical occurrence I found interesting was the fall of Atari in the 80s. According to a paper titled Technological Leapfrogging: Lessons From The U.S. Video Game Console Industry by Melissa Schilling,

“In the mid-1980s, profits for video game makers began to decline; many feared that video games had reached market saturation. Compounding this, the rapid proliferation of unauthorized games (games produced for a console with-out authorization of that console’s producer) lead to a market glut of games of dubious quality, and many unhappy retailers with video game inventories they were unable to move.”

At this point, Nintendo introduced the Nintendo Entertainment System which was infamously locked down, and incredibly successful. The larger takeaway fits well with John Gruber’s analysis of the “sexy app takedown” which is that Apple is attempting to protect the brand of the App Store.

With 150,000 applications, the App Store has a long way to go before it is a paragon of quality, but observing from the brand protection perspective helps me comprehend the rationale behind many of Apple’s decisions.

The best solution I can see would be for Apple to include a permanent certificate along with each iPad, allowing users to install any non-approved applications at their own risk. Apple could still use the kill-switch to block trojan applications (likely igniting a pyrolytic web-firestorm). Along with some loosening of the restrictions in sections 7.1-3 this would allow developers to distribute apps independently, and users could install open source or homemade applications.

Even with all of the capriciousness witnessed in terms of App Store approvals, I am excited to purchase an iPad. The App Store’s success has shattered all predictions – growing three times more quickly than music sales in the iTunes Store, which themselves grew more quickly than most critics estimated. Given the level of rigor required on Apple’s part, it is amazing that it has scaled so well thus far. Furthermore, Apple has shown itself open to adjusting and improving the process just as they have added features and refined the iPhone operating system over time.

I am cautiously optimistic regarding the platform. Apple’s track record of delivering superb products leads me to believe that the hardware and software will be well executed. Apple’s willingness to change is an encouraging sign since even systems that start out in the right direction need course corrections every so often.