The case against the iPad

Timothy B. Lee is good friend of ours. He is a member of the Center for Information Technology at Princeton University and he blogs at Bottom-Up.

Apple released a new product, called the iPad, yesterday. For those of you who don’t spend your days glued to Twitter, you can view all the details at Apple’s website. I’m not impressed. I’m a lifelong Mac fanboy, so I’m not averse to buying Apple stuff. But I have two problems with the device: first, I don’t understand who this product is marketed to. And second, I’m disappointed that Apple has decided to adopt the iPhone’s locked-down platform strategy.

It’s not clear who has an urgent need for this device. Apple’s existing product lines — Macs, iPods, and iPhones — are all focused on common activities that virtually everyone does. Most people listen to music and make phone calls. Most people need a full-scale computer. In contrast, it’s not clear what the core purpose of an iPad is. It’s too limited to fully replace a laptop — who wants to type long emails on a virtual keyboard? It’s too big and heavy to replace an iPod or an iPhone. And it’s just not clear that someone who already has a MacBook and an iPod will shell out another $500-800 for a third device.

I think the primary intended use of the iPad is as an eBook reader. But here too, the iPad falls short. Dedicated eBook raeders like the Kindle use e-ink which has two key characteristics: phenomenally long battery life and superior readability in bright light. E-Books are a nice “extra” feature for a tablet computer to have, but if that’s the primary thing people want to do, they should buy a Kindle.

My second problem with the iPad is more fundamental: The iPad appears to be Steve Jobs’s attempt to roll back the multi-decade trend toward more open computing platforms. Jobs’s vision of the future is one that revolves around a series of proprietary “stores” — for music, movies, books, and so forth — controlled by Apple. And rather than running the applications of our choice, he wants to limit users to running Apple-approved software from the Apple “app store.”

I’ve written before about the problems created by the iPhone’s top-down “app store.” The store is an unnecessary bottleneck in the app development process that limits the functionality of iPhone applications and discourages developers from adopting the platform. Apple has apparently chosen to extend this policy — as opposed to the more open Mac OS X policy — to the iPad.

With the iPhone, you could at least make the argument that its restrictive application approval rules guaranteed the reliability of the iPhone in the face of tight technical constraints. The decision not to allow third-party apps to multitask, for example, ensures that a misbehaving app won’t drain your iPhone’s battery while it runs in the background. And the approval process makes it less likely that a application crash could interfere with the core telephone functionality.

But these considerations don’t seem to apply to the iPad. Apple is attempting to pioneer a new product category, which suggests that reliability is relatively less important and experimentation more so. If a misbehaving application drains your iPad battery faster than you expected, so what? If you’re reading an e-book on your living room couch, you probably have a charger nearby. And it’s not like you’re going to become stranded if your iPad runs out of batteries the way you might without your phone. On the other hand, if the iPad is to succeed, someone is going to have to come up with a “killer app” for it. There’s a real risk that potential developers will be dissuaded by Apple’s capricious and irritating approval process.

The iPad also has a proprietary dock connector, a headphone jack, and no other ports. The net effect of this is, again, to give Apple complete control over the platform’s evolution, because the only way for third-party devices to connect to the iPad is through the proprietary dock connector. Again, this made a certain amount of sense on the iPhone, where space, weight, and ergonomics are at a premium. But it’s totally unacceptable for a device that aims to largely replace my laptop. Hell, even most video game consoles have USB ports.

The iPad book store looks like it has similar flaws. From all indications, the books you “buy” on an iPad will be every bit as limited as the books you “buy” on the Kindle; if you later decide to switch to another device, there’s no easy (or legal) way to take your books with you. I think this is an issue that a lot of Kindle owners haven’t thought through carefully, and that it will trigger a backlash once a significant number of them decide they’d like to try another device.

This is of a piece with the rest of Apple’s media strategy. Apple seems determined to replicate the 20th century business model of paying for copies of content in an age where those copies have a marginal cost of zero. Analysts often point to the strategy as a success, but I think this is a misreading of the last decade. The parts of the iTunes store that have had the most success — music and apps — are tied to devices that are strong products in their own right. Recall that the iPod was introduced 18 months before the iTunes Store, and that the iPhone had no app store for its first year. In contrast, the Apple TV, which is basically limited to only playing content purchased from the iTunes Store, has been a conspicuous failure. People don’t buy iPods and iPhones in order to use the iTunes store. They buy from the iTunes store because it’s an easy way to get stuff onto their iPods and iPhones.

Apple is fighting against powerful and fundamental economic forces. In the short term, Apple’s technological and industrial design prowess can help to prop up dying business models. But before too long, the force of economic gravity will push the price of content down to its marginal cost of zero. And when it does, the walls of Apple’s garden will feel a lot more confining. If “tablets” are the future, which is far from clear, I’d rather wait for a device that gives me full freedom to run the applications and display the content of my choice.