The iPad is the iPrius: Your Computer Consumerized

Eugene Shimalsky in his short piece “One Small iPad for Man, One Giant Leap for Apple” declares that the iPad is interesting primarily because it isn’t a computer. As he puts it:

Yesterday, Apple got all of the geeks glued to their screens waiting for the “Jesus Tablet,” iPad. An hour later, they were twittering that it did not come. Or maybe it just wasn’t their Jesus?

It turns out it was his Mom’s.

It’s been a long time since most of us have used our computers to do anything approaching “computing,” but the iPad explicitly leaves the baggage behind, leaps the conceptual gulf, and becomes something else entirely. Something consumery, media’ish, and not in the least bit intimidating.

The automobile went through a similar evolution. From eminently hackable to hood essentially sealed shut. When the automobile was new, you HAD to be a mechanic to own one. Later, being a mechanic gave you the option of tinkering and adapting it to your specific interests. In fact, that’s how most people up until about 1985 learned to be mechanics. The big changes came with the catalytic converter and electronic ignition (and warranty language to match). Now the automobile has reached the point in its development where you don’t even have to know whether it has a motor or an engine to use it, but to tinker at all requires highly specialized skills.

So, in some ways this evolution of the computer to the iPrius seems completely natural. I don’t care all that much if the iPad is hermetically sealed, but I wonder uncomfortably if in a few years the MacBook and the PC will be too. Or, more likely, we’ll just wake up one day to a world without MacBooks or PC’s. As we continue our shift en mass to the mobile device ecosystem and the laptop as we know it goes the way of the desktop, banished to special purpose niches.

In mobile land, closed carrier heritage combined with Apple’s product vectors may leave us with only closed options. A confluence of interests – commercial (get your pure non-pirated content only from me!), governmental (cyber defense!), and user (I want to be safe!) – will find that outcome attractive. Our generative and hacker-friendly world will be replaced by a sterile world of sealed aluminum.

No doubt the iPad will be hacked by someone to prove it is still possible. They’ll run linux on it within a week of launch, but that’s not where they will have learned those skills. They learned them on the highly generative PC they probably bought for something else. Slight differences in approachability and “ease of mastery” (as Zittrain puts it) make a big difference. The curves are steep. And tomorrow the people that buy iPad’s descendants will be less likely to develop those skills. Who’s going to buy a developer’s license just to screw around?

For your phone Apple could make a strong argument that this kind of control was necessary. They needed to make sure it was reliable first and foremost as a phone (rather than reliable as a snooping device or wouldn’t just crash every time you really needed to make a call). The argument is being extended to the iPad more because of Apple’s culture than real need, and if I was Steve Jobs looking at iTunes receipts I would do the same thing. But… directionally this is a vector toward compuserve, not away from it. The iPad is Steve’s Minitel terminal.

Just for the heck of it, imagine for a minute that the MacBookPro was locked up like the iPad. The apps that run on the iPhone have been mostly trivial. One person for a few weeks is probably the average effort. Eugene Lin may be willing to build apps on spec and hope for the best after they are submitted, but will Adobe? Imagine when Adobe invests $X millions building Lightroom for a year only to have it rejected because Apple launches Aperture the same week.

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