Monday, April 5, 2010

The Problem with iPad

The Apple iPad went on sale April 3rd, 2010 to much fanfare. Apple is billing it as a new type of device, and reviewers consider it a tablet media player/PC. Reputable reviewers are raving about iPad with such superlatives as: "a laptop killer", "a winner", "one of the best computers [sic] ever", and "the iPad beats even my most optimistic expectations. This is a new category of device. But it also will replace laptops for many people."

Now the iPad is definitely a slick piece of kit. Apple has created a beautiful hardware product. It is gorgeous in its simplicity and solid metal and glass construction. The size is a ideal for transporting while being big enough to handle some real reading tasks. The benefits end here. Unfortunately the iPad is saddled with a few crippling weaknesses.

Cory Doctorow has a great explanation here. The main argument is against the restrictive software model. Computers are meant to be examined, experimented with, tinkered with, and optimized. Even if a casual user wants only to to check emails and browse YouTube, he benefits greatly from those who are more inclined to take a closer look at the machinery in front of them. These "power users" are the ones who create free and open source software. They're the ones who keep the big guys honest by discovering flaws in commercial software. They're the ones who evangelize the latest technology. This is particularly disturbing to find technologically informed people praising and pushing the iPad.

The iPad is not a computer. It is a glorified media consumption device. A computer can run arbitrary code. It can do what the user tells it to do. The iPad tells the user what he can do, and he should be happy to pay for the privilege. In order to run software on the iPad, a programmer must write a program according to Apple's specs in a specific language (Objective C) and then submit it for approval to the app store. Then Apple must approve of this software before it is published. If the developer wishes to charge for the software, Apple automatically takes a fixed cut of 30% of the proceeds. This means a developer must play by Apple's (and perhaps AT&T's) Draconian rules in addition to sacrificing 30% just for the privilege of writing software for the iPad.

And because I'm a sucker for lists, here's a list of flaws with the iPad:
  • Relies on the app store for ALL software
  • Requires iTunes for loading files
  • No multi-tasking
  • XGA screen (1024x768) cannot display HD content
  • No user accessible file system
  • No replaceable battery
  • No expansion ports (arguably not a flaw)
The starting price on the iPad is $499, which is respectable given the hardware design. However, just like the automobile industry, the hardware options will affect the price considerably. Adding a 3G radio and 48GB of flash memory increases the price a whopping 66%.

Apple clearly creates different products with different customers in mind. I've been heavily using a MacPro with OSX Snow Leopard Server lately and I am very satisfied with the experience. I'm no UNIX whiz yet (I'm probably still more comfortable with a DOS prompt), but having terminal access right on the dock is a fantastic feature. Like any respectable server, I can connect remotely via SSH and hack until I'm happy. In fact, the Apple II+ even included schematics for the circuit boards. In contrast, Apple's first foray into the ultra-thin and light computing market, the MacBook Air, didn't even include an ethernet port.

In an attempt at streamlining (ahem, asserting control over the user), Apple has eliminated the concept of files with the iPad. Until cloud computing and services like Google docs are ready for prime time, the iPad is useless as a content creation tool. That leaves it as a media and internet consumption device. Such media players aren't necessarily bad, and the form factor of the iPad is quite suitable. But Apple has dropped the ball again, this time by forcing iTunes usage. We all know how Plays for Sure TM turned out; even a juggernaut like Microsoft was unable to salvage the music libraries of paying customers. There is no place for DRM is today's technology climate, though this is a rant for another time. It is easy to fill up the iPad's memory with media content and applications remotely, but it is impossible to remove media content without docking to an iTunes workstation (with wires, no less, even though Wifi is already built into the iPad and ubiquitous).

The critical praise of the iPad reeks of irresponsible, lazy journalism. The reviewers are too lazy to truly identify what the iPad is and what it is not. It is not a computer. It is a handcuffed media player mashed with a mediocre internet browser wrapped in a sexy package. It's much easier to be seduced by Apple's rhetoric and entranced by the pretty hardware design than to truly evaluate the capabilities and merits of the device.


  1. I don't really get the complaints about lack of opennness. It's more open than a typical video game console. And when you jailbreak it, you get multitasking and homebrew without completely giving it over to bootlegging. Nobody with a hacked Xbox is paying for games.

    And newcomers can't break into Xbox development without paying five-figure submission fees. The jump from homebrewer to independent developer is a huge obstacle on a lot of platforms. Apple isn't removing the bar completely, but they're lowering it, and competition from Google and Amazon helps move things forward.

    It's also nice to put flash-free HTML5 environments in the hands of more people, which encourages the development of web frontends that anybody can read the source code to.

  2. Definitely some great points. I don't think you ought to be required to hack (jailbreak) and possibly void the warranty on a product you legally own just to unlock its feature set though.

    Re: console dev fees, yes the iPad is significantly cheaper to become an independent developer on, but multi-purpose computers historically have no such fees. So from a computer viewpoint, this is a huge step backwards, though from a console (primarily intended for media consumption) it's a step in the right direction.

    I couldn't agree more on the HTML5 argument though. I'm sick of Flash, but it's still pretty ubiquitous and lots of people rely on it. Perhaps the iPad will spur this in the right direction.

  3. Hey Dave, cool blog. :)

    Continuing Phssthpok's argument above w/r/t development fees, I think it could be argued that the development costs actually translate into a real value-add for the end developer - access to the App Store, which gives developers a MUCH easier way to make money off of their work.

    I mean, if I'm a developer, it's not like Apple has taken away my access to open development on a multi-purpose computer - I can still build software on the Mac, or the PC, or Linux, and distribute it however I wish. (Hell, Apple GIVES AWAY a quite good IDE for Mac with every computer it sells, or you can download it for free.)

    But software distribution for anything other than free, not-for-profit stuff is a hard problem - you've got to make people aware of your work, convince them that it's a good idea that's worth paying money for, somehow arrange to transfer their money to you in a safe, hassle-free way, and arrange to get your software into their hands in a safe, hassle-free way.

    The App Store doesn't completely solve all these problems, but it puts a big dent in each of them. And that means that, as a developer, I can spend more time working on my program - which is something that I'm the world's greatest expert in - and less time messing around with stuff like marketing and distribution, which I'm probably not an expert in.

    And, more importantly, the App Store gives me a stream of income that works as an incentive for me to keep working on my program, whereas the net is littered with half-finished software that may or may not have contained a good idea, but we'll never know because because there was nothing beyond the original "hey, what if I did this" motivation to drive development.

    And I think that's what the App Store represents - creating a somewhat smaller, but financially-motivated community of developers to work on apps that people will actually pay for, vs. the open souce community, which is potentially larger but lacks polish and direction.

    Now, if you really want to rag on Apple, I suggest you attack their recent stupid idea to prohibit developers from working with 3rd party development frameworks... but that's a different rant.

  4. Great points, Chris. Thanks for the comment.

    I agree that a nice feature of the app store is the ability for a developer to focus on development instead of sales & distribution. I just really wish it were optional. Allow those who want to do all the (non-dev) work themselves to do so. The tinkerers and builders could create and pass around their own code freely and run it natively on the machine if they wish. Additionally, some flexibility in the terms of sale within the app store would be nice, but I understand that Apple doesn't want to go down that road of negotiating a cut for each pay app that sprouts up.

    You're right, I should have spent more time discussing the Apple mandated dev tools, but my point is not to rag on Apple. I really value the thought that goes into their hardware design. I use the MacPro daily, and I've been more happy than disappointed with the iPhone. However, the state of cell phones & service providers in the US is abysmal, so with any change it's really hard to not make improvements, intentional or not.

    What frustrates me the most is that Apple really designed the iPad for a select set of use-cases: non tech savvy people consuming media, writing/reading email, and browsing. Now, simple user interfaces are a brilliant idea. Not everyone wants to deal with the dirty details of computation, like memory, files, and directories. But there will always be a segment of users who do want to tinker with their own products purchased with hard-earned cash. This segment of users is capable of producing the "killer app" for iPad, thus leading to even more sales. It seems awfully short sighted of Apple to neglect these users with the iPad.

    The device could be so much more, but artificial restrictions (DRM and app store) are in place to protect Apple's interests over those of the developers and their customers. It seems awfully arrogant and controlling for Apple to mandate how their device will be used. I was able to fix a faulty mirror in my car using a salad fork instead of the $50 specialized tool for removing the mirror. I view Apple's behavior regarding the iPad to be the equivalent of the salad fork manufacturer demanding that I do not use the fork as a tool.

  5. Those a reasonable points, and what you're saying makes sense. I guess the only thing I'd point out is that Apple has _always_ been like this - the original 1984 Mac was described as being a lot like Steve Jobs himself, "brilliant, charming, and with no input slots" - and the iPod has been locked to iTunes from day one.

    That being the case, I think the bigger problem for people who want more open development on Apple platforms is that the company's making too damn much money to stop what they're doing - I guess the hope has to be that more open architectures, like Linux or the PC, ultimately provide a more lucrative option for developers and/or a better overall experience for end users, and Apple takes notice and changes their business plan accordingly.