Whose iPad is It, Anyway?

What’s the single most worrisome thing about the iPad? It’s not the lack of a physical keyboard, or that third-party applications can’t multitask, or even the fact that people are still arguing that it’s unclear whether there’s a market for the thing. It’s Apple’s monopoly on distribution of applications. Absent jailbreaking–and I’m curious to see if Apple has done anything to lock down the iPad evenmore than the iPhone–this is a device that will run the software that Apple thinks it should run.

For lots of people, that’s a dealbreaker on both philosophical and practical grounds. Last August, during the controversy over Apple’s failure to approve Google’s Google Voice app, I blogged about my unhappiness with the situation but also said I thought Apple would decide it was in its best interest to do the right thing with app approval in the long run.

Months later, there haven’t been any further major App Store approval fiascos (at least not ones that we know about). But Apple never did approve Google Voice, and Google gave up and developed a Web-based version. It’s quite good, but not as good as the native one would have been.

As an iPhone owner, the whole Google Voice saga is still stuck in my craw–especially since Apple’s official stance appears to be that it’s still “pondering” whether to approve the app.

Emotionally and rationally, I want the iPhone/iPad platform to be open. I still believe it’ll happen. But here’s the thing: At the moment, Apple’s closed platform has a vastly richer and more interesting selection of applications than any mobile platform that is more open. An optimist would take that fact as evidence that Apple’s strategy actually benefits consumers; a pessimist would conclude that it gives Apple little incentive to loosen up.

The next big milestone for the iPhone/iPad platform will come when Apple starts to disclose details about iPhone OS 4.0. Judging from last year’s iPhone 3.0 timetable, 4.0’s unveiling may be only weeks away. If Apple announces that it’s formally allowing applications to bypass the App Store and its approval process, I’ll be stunned. But if it has no news whatsoever about relaxing the current constraints on developers, I’ll be very disappointed.

Your thoughts?


17 comments

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  1. Steven Fisher January 29, 2010 at 8:12 am #

    Other than jailbreaking, there's another obvious way to distribute apps:

    Developer distributes compiled (but not linked) objects and an Xcode project. No source code necessary.

    User get an ADC membership. It's $99/year. Which isn't cheap, but for a couple applications you must have that Apple won't distribute? Looks like a bargain.

    User opens project, hits Run. Project is linked and installed on the iPhone/iPad.

    To be fair, I haven't actually tried this yet. It may not work. But I think if you're a developer complaining about the store being closed, you ought to have tried this approach.

  2. Dale Larson January 29, 2010 at 11:04 am #

    One suggestion I heard (John Grubber?) was that Apple should let you sign a waiver that says you’re a grown-up and want to accept the risk of choosing what apps you run for yourself, without testing or censorship. Then they’d flip a switch (much like jailbreaking) and let you at it.

    My own problem is with ad hoc distribution required for testing and such — I help so many iPhone companies that I’m constantly going through the pain of dealing with multiple provisioning files and lengthy processes with updates every few days. Again, Apple could do a small amount of work to make this much easier for anyone who certifies themselves a tester the same way they could certify themselves as a grownup.

    One of the most important reason for Apple to make this change would be PR: aside from making things easier for reviewers, testers and tinkerers, they’d shut up a whole lot of folks who currently complain loudly.

  3. george January 29, 2010 at 11:32 am #

    “For lots of people this is a dealbreaker…”

    Lots? Like 30 % of potential buyers? 20 %? 10 %?

    I highly doubt that.

  4. Harry McCracken January 29, 2010 at 11:52 am #

    @george: Naw, I didn’t mean gazillions of folks–it’s a relatively small group of people, as evidenced by the iPhone’s high sales. But some of the very smartest tech users there are won’t buy an iPhone (or an iPad) because of the Apple software distribution monopoly.

    –Harry

  5. Thomas Sommerfield January 29, 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    Well, you brought it up, so let’s re-hash the Google Voice situation….. which inevitably leads towards “open source” & the like…….

    (sigh)

    Whom is Apple under contractual obligation to in order to provide wireless connectivity to/with their products?

    What are the terms of that contract exactly?

    Are there restrictions/clauses in that contract?

    I would think so, but nobody seems to be talking about that.

    If I am a communications company that provides wireless/internet/cellular/landline services, why would I endorse/allow a “free” product that cuts into (or even kills long term) my business? Why would I ever conceivably allow a business partner of mine to endorse the very thing that could do me in? I don’t think anyone who owns a business would ever dream of doing such a thing. Regardless of the flak from NY & CA, it is a win/win for both AT&T & Apple.

    Is the future “open source/open platform?” I would say yes. Just not entirely RIGHT NOW as many in that community would have it. They learned a lot from the whole Motorola/IBM/Apple tryst, and you just HAVE TO make certain concessions when it comes to your bedfellows. AT&T is another example of that.

    I truly believe that is why the iPhone is as it is & so is the iPad. They are also NEW PRODUCTS & NEW PLATFORMS & by remaining closed, you allow for the most stability w/in the system itself. You guys seem to forget that when you talk about this……. the majority of people just want things to work, they don’t care how it gets done. They don’t want to see BSODs, blinking screens, blank screens, or any of the myriad errors you get these days. That is not me, but that is many in my family, neighbors, & co-workers. If it’s new, & it breaks, crashes, or just-plain-doesn’t-work (ESPECIALLY TECH), you can be rest assured that your proverbial goose is cooked. If Microsoft had not had such a substantial lead-in from years of marketing chicanery, Vista would have done them in (or close to it).

    Apple is “playing safe” with it’s new platforms, and justifiably so.

    You must also include it’s bedfellow in AT&T whenever you ponder the whys & whatnots….. it’s a big, big factor, whether you like it or not.

  6. ReynaldoRiv January 29, 2010 at 1:53 pm #

    I wanted to want this. But I want a computer, not a glorified ipod Touch. The App store is acceptable foe a phone, not for a computer, at least not as the exclusive option.

  7. MMcGeary January 29, 2010 at 2:54 pm #

    Reynaldo hit the nail on the head. I don’t mind the App Store on my phone. It provides just the right level of service for my mobile needs, while maintaining the kind of guarenteed reliability that a phone should have. I can be assured that Apps downloaded from Apple will not kill my phone or steal my information.

    However, the iPad (what a stupid name. Why couldn’t they have just called it ‘The Tablet’) is more computer than appliance. It’s large, sufficiently powerful and has a wealth of features. Locking such a device down to the same App Store with no alternative makes it so gimped as to be useless. I’d much rather wrangle my laptop computer on the couch than be stuck with a tablet that doesn’t do what I want it to do.

  8. andy January 29, 2010 at 3:22 pm #

    @500 – 850 dollars I think they bought the right to keep it closed for now. My initial reaction was that I was going to pass. The no flash, no background apps, and other limitations are slowly being overcome with the fact that this is obviously going to be a handy device that does in fact replace many others for the most part.

    Decent Photoframe = 200
    ipod = 299
    kindle = 259
    sonos controller = 350
    etc….

    Plus you get the benefit of a really slick device with all the existing and more to come apps. The bigger screen is certainly going to get even more developers and better ideas on the platform. I’m looking forward to see what Sonos can do with the larger interface, for example.

    I don’t really have an issue with the app store concept but they will certainly need to open up the restrictions on the approval process sooner or later.

    At this point, I’m convinced that all of the limitations with this device can be removed with a software update and they are likely to be removed or at least improved over time.

    Lastly, this device will be jailbroken.

    Sadly, I have no confidence that any other device manufacturere can release a better / more capable device so I’m pretty convinced that I will be making the purchases.

  9. RichardL January 29, 2010 at 3:51 pm #

    It’s a problem because too many of Apple’s restrictions are simply self-serving.

  10. Thomas Traub January 29, 2010 at 4:27 pm #

    I’ve downloaded quiete some crappy apps for the iPhone (paid !), so where’s the point in Apple taking care ?

    Based on how it’s now:

    I cannot imagine to do serious work depending on Apple’s only apps, since duplicates aren’t allowed : Safari is a good browser, but it does not replace Firefox with it’s extensions.

    If there’s no file system, I cannot treat files with several applications, I hated that already on the Pilot and that met an end to many things I wanted to do on the iPhone.

    I believe this is a real deal-breaker for me.

    I fist thought, wow they did it, but the more I think, I believe the iPad is a pure consumer / gadget / grandma device, with missing camera (iSight) and USB port.

  11. Daniel January 29, 2010 at 5:18 pm #

    Henry,

    I think the iPad hits a new spot that the netbooks and every portable device (UMPC or whatever name out there) has tried and failed in the public’s imagination. I believe this iPad will see a large acceptance by the masses. The iPad has a lot going for it, many of the standards apps that it has are rock solid and easy to use. A built in iPod that anyone can use, check. An email client that anyone can use to get, read and send email, check. Instant on, check. Virus free, check. Fast web browser that easy to use, again, check. For those that have a wireless router, this will be easy to attach, check. Access to adding new music or apps without additional hardware, big check here (for those with a pre-existing music and video libraries will be easy to sync), check. 140K apps ready day one, check again.

    Apple has not set the bar, they are the bar. Everyone from here on will be compared against the iPad. Of course, it’s also an e-reader. Now the usual problems with these products is getting the public to touch and try it. With the Apple retail stores, this will not be a problem, and once they get their hands on it, I really think that the $499 will make this decision to buy one an easy one.

    I know I sound a lot like a fan boy on this, but I do have my concerns and will more than likely wait on the 3rd gen before I fork my money over. All the check marks I have mentioned is great, but does it print? With something like this iPad, it would be great to be able to print to my printer (blutooth or wireless). Not really mentioned a lot, but I do believe this will be a major issue that will hopefully be addressed by the 3rd gen.

  12. Daniel January 29, 2010 at 5:28 pm #

    @Thomas Traub,
    Any app that you purchased can be returned for a full refund. I’ve done it, which is why I feel confident in purchasing an app and if it doesn’t satisfy me, I ask for a refund. I know the point is that Apple doesn’t guarantee the product to be great, but it does limit putting something that can harm your iphone/iPod, say like the openssh that some jailbroken phone users bumped into.

  13. Tech January 29, 2010 at 5:59 pm #

    Apple need to be more liberal with their products. They leave out far too many features then expect people to pay extra for them.

  14. gagravaar January 30, 2010 at 9:26 am #

    It’s not a netbook, it’s not a computer, it’s a… a word hasn’t been invented yet – it’s a different sort of take on this experience we all call ‘computing’.

    If you want a netbook, or a computer that let’s you do just about everything, then buy something else – you’re welcome to it.

    The iPad (and the ‘devices’ that come after) will all be based on the model unveiled by Apple and what’s more, because everything that runs on it has to go through the Apple approval process and managed through iTunes, it becomes difficult, I’d say even impossible to write viruses for this thing – unless your stupid enough to jailbreak it.

    That alone is enough reason for me to buy it – yes I’d still have a workhorse Mac, based on OSX to do everything it cannot (ripping CD’s & DVD’s for one), but Apple have a buyer right here and a lot of people will follow me, regardless of what all the ‘geeks’ say.

  15. AdamG January 31, 2010 at 12:28 pm #

    Personally not interested at all in a platform where I have no structured file system or any ability whatsoever to work under the hood. Not saying it won’t be successful, just mentioning that it certainly isn’t the most versatile product out there.

    One other point, shouldn’t the poll have as many positive points as it has negative points?

  16. DazzaJ February 2, 2010 at 12:30 am #

    From what I’ve read so far the iPad is a very limited device (toy). Its an oversize iPhone which is old hat now anyway compared to the new systems becoming available such as droid, and symbiam etc.
    As seen with most iPhone apps, they are very basic and limiting in general and even though there may be 1000’s of apps, there is very few GOOD ones.
    Apple products are generally toys, aimed at yuppies and trendoids, minimalistic use, expensive and are of very little use or value in the REAL world.
    For real development then either stick with Windows or Linux on REAL laptops, and enjoy a greater, more open, and more powerful systems.

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