Apple’s iPad has been drawing a lot of criticism from developers lately for its locked-down platform. Any software that a third-party wants to develop for the iPad has to go through Apple’s approval process, which has proven to be a fickle arbiter. What’s interesting about the iPad is that it uses the exact same system as the iPhone, which didn’t draw nearly as much criticism. So what gives?

The answer is that it depends on whether you see the iPad as a device or a computer. If you compare the iPad to older devices like, say, the Nintendo Entertainment System, or just about any game console, for that matter, the iPad is remarkably open. The iPad’s development tools are free to download, as compared to Nintendo’s, which cost thousands of dollars. In addition, distribution for the iPad is trivial (it’s just software – no expensive cartridges to manufacture). As far as approving and allowing content goes, Nintendo has always had the exact same approach as Apple does now. There’s no question that Apple’s platform is much more open than Nintendo’s (or Sony’s, or Sega’s).

Of course, if you look at the iPad as a general-purpose computer, the picture changes dramatically. In that case the iPad is the most locked-down, restrictive computer in history. Even Microsoft never imposed the kind of control and restrictions on software development and distribution that Apple has. It’s virtually impossible to get any software on your iPad without going through Apple first. Could you imagine if you had to get Microsoft’s approval to install, say, tax software? Or if Microsoft had to approve of Firefox in order for it to be installed on your machine? Not that I’m praising Microsoft’s openness here – they have antitrust allegations to worry about – but compared to the iPad, Microsoft Windows is a haven of freedom. Third party developers working on the iPad have to say a little prayer that their app doesn’t offend Apple’s delicate censors, or worse, compete with Apple’s functionality (since Apple doesn’t allow software that offers “duplicate functionality”). If Apple does, for whatever reason, turn down their app, developers have no recourse or alternate distribution method. What Apple says, goes.

So which is the iPad – device or computer? The iPad itself makes clear that the distinction is arbitrary. A device is simply a locked-down computer, something that device makers have known for a long time. It mostly has to do with marketing; devices are usually designed (and locked-down) for a specific application (like gaming or e-reading), while computers (and their operating systems) are open-ended and multi-functional.

The iPad lives in a weird grey area. It has almost all the capabilities of a full-fledged computer, but Apple has chosen to treat it like a device. That makes it much easier to use than the Mac (in the same way that the NES was vastly easier to use than the C64). But it also raises all the control freak issues that Apple is infamous for.

I think the main worry among developers is that other manufacturers might follow Apple’s lead. That the trend will be to move away from general-purpose computers and towards locked-down, proprietary devices and operating systems. If that’s where we’re going, then developers (particularly independent developers) could be in serious trouble. This also extends to the web, I’m afraid: if consumers are only able to use locked-down, proprietary browsers, then net neutrality is once again at risk (this time from the client side), which will primarily affect independent developers and small businesses.

Is the iPad indeed this sort of threat? Only time will tell.


3 Comments on “Lockdown”

  1. Andrew Case says:

    Actually that’s not at all why people are up in arms. People got really animated because Apple changed the terms so that iPhone/iPad platform developers can no longer use code-language-translation software And requires that all code use the native libraries. Meaning any platform that doesn’t interface directly with the native platform is now barred. Any application that utilizes an intermediate platform that allows it to be platform independent is now barred. For example, firefox/thunderbird which use XUL would be barred. This change was directly targeted at Adobe to prevent Adobe from providing the Flash player set of application for the iPhone/iPad. But this change affects LOTS of applications in addition. Any application that would be written for cross platform support between iPhone and any other platform would fall under the terms of being subject to this lock out.

    The changes where:

    “Applications may only use Documented APIs in the manner prescribed by Apple and must not use or call any private APIs. Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript as executed by the iPhone OS WebKit engine, and only code written in C, C++, and Objective-C may compile and directly link against the Documented APIs (e.g., Applications that link to Documented APIs through an intermediary translation or compatibility layer or tool are prohibited).”

  2. You’re right – Apple’s approval process for apps is only part of the lockdown. But my post refers to lockdown in general, not just Apple’s approval process. The iPad is still more open than the Wii, the Xbox360, or the PS3 (which just removed its support for Linux via a mandatory firmware update), all of which probably has their own arbitrary restrictions on the development process.

    My main point is that if you’re upset about the lockdown tactics that Apple is using, there are plenty of other manufacturers that are far worse. Obviously I think all these platforms should be more open, but I’m not sure Apple is the place to start.

    My other point was that I think people are getting more upset over the iPad than other, more locked down devices because it’s more like a “computer” than a “device”. So the iPad “feels” more locked down.

  3. Andrew Case says:

    It should be compared to its peers (Android, etc.)

    Why people are so surprised is confusing though given Apples extensively long history of being closed.

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