Disclaimer 1: I haven’t played with an iPad yet.
Disclaimer 2: While I agree with everything Cory Doctorow wrote about the iPad, I still want one. Please don’t judge me…

Today is launch day for the iPad, and, it’s going to be remembered as an “important” day in the development of computers, as the launch day of the iPhone represents an important day in the history of the mobile phone (and, as we’ve discovered, the eReader and the computer). That said, I think it’s important to stress that the iPad is not a computer.

In an editorial published yesterday entitled “Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either)”, Cory Doctorow makes the case for why the iPad is not a “revolutionary” product when it comes to user empowerment. Take a moment and go read the article. Seriously… whether or not you agree with Doctorow’s conclusion this is an important discussion.

I for one agree with Doctorow. Apple, by extending the “successes” of the iPhone with the iPad, is defining a new, restrictive, device space — one in which the device you purchase is wired shut (I’m borrowing both the phrase and concept from Tarleton Gillespie1) . As Doctorow points out, as with the iPhone, the iPad is a device that you buy but don’t own.

  • Even though you paid hundreds for it, you can’t take it apart without voiding the warranty.2
  • Even though you paid hundreds for it, you can’t customize it in an non-​Apple approved way it without voiding the warranty.3
  • Even though you paid hundreds for it, you can’t load apps from 3rd parties without going through the Official App store without voiding the warranty.

To appreciate how this model is different, think about a car. I can perform routine maintenance on my car without voiding the warranty (provided I do it correctly). I can put alternative grades of gas in their car without voiding the warranty. Most importantly, I can open up the hood and take a look at the engine without voiding their warranty.

The iPad is, to borrow another metaphor from Gillespie, a car whose hood is welded shut. If you break that seal, even if you don’t touch a thing, you’ve voided the warranty. Further it’s a car in which I can only put in approved gas, and that gas can only be bought from the manufacturer of the car.

This all leads me to why the iPad and other upcoming tablets are not computers. The computer, as we understand it, was the ultimate in customizable equipment. Take a trip to the grocery store and take a look at the magazine rack. Even at a time when magazines are ceasing print edition, you’ll still find numerous magazine dedicated to how you can mod your computer. And even if you aren’t interested in modifying your computer, you still have full choice over what software you can load on it. You can purchase software at computer/​electronic stores, big box business stores like Staples, and even at supermarkets and dollar stores. You can also download software from countless websites. There’s no approval processes. For better or worse, anyone can write and distribute software. For all the reasons stated above, this isn’t the case with the iPad.

The iPad is not a computer. It’s a device which the user has limited control over.

An argument has been made that this closeness doesn’t matter when the platform is so easy to program for that a 13 year old child can create and market their own app through the store. The problem this argument conflates access to authoring tools and a marketing channel with control over the device/​distribution. Put it a different way, yes that child can build their own app. That’s nothing new, precocious children have been programming for years! What this argument fails to take into account is that the child’s ability to distribute that app is controlled not by the child but by Apple. If Apple decides that the app is inappropriate — of course, everything that junior-​high-​school-​age boys produce is always appropriate —then it will be removed from the store. Once that happens, there is no way to load it onto the iPad, even if that child ops to eMail it to friends. Private distribution, outside of the app store, is not a option.

And while someone might say that the child could get around this restriction by building their application on the web, there are two problems with this model. First, there is still no easy way to charge for access to a web app. Second, and more important, the primary graphic tool for building web applications, Adobe’s Flash, cannot run on the iPad.

Others have suggested that the iPad is nowhere near as closed a platform as the printed book. While this is a bit of an “apples vs. remote controls” type of move, even if we take the comparison seriously, I don’t think it holds up. Yes, I can’t directly change the content of the book. I’m not easily able to add pages or words for example (at least not additional printed words). However, I’m free to alter the book in any way I want. I can make notes in the margins. If I’m a dadaist (or a ransom note writer), I can cut the book apart and reassemble the words in different formats. And I can also choose to create my own book, radically altering the form of the book, as well as its contents.

What is particularly interesting for me, as a social scientist, is that this “locking down” of the iPad and other tablets can be seen as reversing a key trend of modernity/​promise of technology. According to its proponents, the “computer/​internet revolution” enabled us to move beyond the “mass” prefix. No longer were we the “mass produced” culture of the industrial age. Technology enabled choice; it allowed us to personalize our commodities and our media. Mass media was replaced by web 2.0 where anyone could create their own content and share it.

The iPhone, the iPad, and a number of other devices on the horizon, step away from this. In the name of user experience4 we are taking a step back towards Fordism (“You can have any app you want on your iPod as long as it’s approved by Apple.”) Cynically, one might argue that what this is really doing is pulling the veil off of the “mass customization” that we have really been experiencing5 — that we have never realized the freedoms promised to us by technology. I’m not quite that cynical.

I, like Doctorow, think it’s important for a space of experimentation and resistance to be available.6 And the failure of the iPad, and a number of other tablets that look to be on the way, is that it doesn’t provide that space. If anything, the iPad works to enclose possibilities, not expand them. My hope is that this model will not win out. My expectation (especially considering that after writing all of this I still want an iPad) is that this will be the future (or at least for a while).

Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either)

  1. For an excellent summary of the parts Gillespie’s argument that are especially relevant to this discussion see his article “Designed to Effectively Frustrate.” []
  2. Note that the iPad and the iPhone were by no means the first devices to forbid the user from taking them apart. []
  3. The iPhone was, however, the device that popularized the App store model which has since been embraced by Google and Microsoft. []
  4. Note that I don’t want this to be an either/​or situation. Just about every decision Apple has made can be justified in terms of user experience. Of that there is little question. However, failing to acknowledge the trade offs that are occurring because of this and contemplate how this may be indicative of a larger trend would be a mistake as well. []
  5. See Mark Andrejevic’s iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Internet Era for a particularly excellent summary of this position. []
  6. This is a fundamentally different position than being technological Utopian — I don’t think technology is the solution, its what the people do with the technology that matters. []