Would you use this object if it came with restrictions? Photo — of a hacked Moleskin, ironically — (CC-BY-SA) Alexandre Dulaunoy.

Apple’s iPad is here. It starts at $499. It’s a gorgeous, brilliantly-designed device that has the benefits of Apple’s cleverly-engineered, best-in-class developer tools for mobile. A lot are likely to sell. And unfortunately, to me that means bad news for the kind of creative computing we talk about on this site.

To put it briefly, I think the new, mobile Apple is doing immense harm to the computing legacy the company has forged. We could have had a Mac tablet today. Instead, we have a giant iPhone – and that’s a decision that has some serious repercussions. It’s a blow to open source alternatives, but also to open development in general: the power of interchangeable hardware and software, on which everything we do with music and visuals on computers is based.

For years, the Mac community railed against the perceived closed nature of Microsoft. Now, many are rallying behind an Apple with a vision more closed than Redmond’s.

This is important to both CDMs, because it’s on both these sites that I, along with readers and contributors, have advocated open computing as a creative outlet, for creation, sharing, and distribution of music, visuals, and knowledge.

I’m entirely biased by my own perspective. There are certain things I care about, that I believe in. I can talk about the technical, measurable values of each of those, but I can only speak for myself. With that in mind, the iPad, in a single device, embodies the exact opposite of all the reasons I’ve invested so much time in computing for the last 25 years.

  • It’s a closed platform. As with the iPhone, development for the iPad means reliance on Apple’s tools, on the use of proprietary Apple hardware and software just to build an app. Now, those could be worthy sacrifices for a great product. But it also means that Apple alone distributes applications, and decides which applications developers will be allowed to create – something that has never been true on a computing OS. Since the unveiling of the iPhone SDK, Apple apologists argued that somehow this was a decision made by phone carriers, that surely their beloved Apple was not to blame. Yet Apple has chosen that path for a device that, while it lacks a keyboard, otherwise looks for all the world like a computer – like something that could have been a Mac, with all the power and freedom of a Mac, instead of an iPhone.
  • It has no standard ports. Like the iPhone, the iPad has only a proprietary dock connector, ensuring Apple has control over the hardware made for the device. You can throw away decades of the lessons of the value of standard connectors, of the freedom to connect a computer as – to use a phrase Apple popularized – a digital hub. There’s not even HDMI to connect to a display. Clarification: video out will be possible, albeit with a proprietary adapter. And *access* to that video port from software has been a huge problem on the iPhone. See additional notes on Create Digital Motion. Additionally, the possibilities of external hardware are not entirely known. Apple will offer a memory card reader adapter that uses USB. But there isn’t a native USB port on the machine, and this doesn’t necessarily suggest full support for USB; hopefully, additional details will emerge.
  • It’s tied to iTunes. As with the iPhone, you can’t use the iPad’s drive as a drive. You can’t connect it to a computer and put on it what you like. You’re limited to using third-party apps as conduits or servers – and even then, you’re limited; critical files for media and reading are controlled by Apple’s market-dominating iTunes app. It’s a storage device you own, but that someone else controls. Maybe that’s acceptable for game consoles, but, again, the iPad has the appearance of a computer. (Except, of course, it’s actually not.)
  • Apple alone controls the distribution of media. Apple already has a dangerously dominant position in the consumption of music and mobile software, and their iTunes-device link ensures that content goes through their store, their conduit, and ultimately their control. This means that developers are limited in what they can create for the device when it comes to media – a streaming Last.fm app is okay, but an independent music store (like Amazon MP3 on Android) is not. Now, you can add to that Apple dominating book distribution. At a time when we have an opportunity to promote independent e-book publishing, the iPad is accompanied by launch deals from major traditional publishers. What does that mean for independent writers and content? Updated: As several readers have noted, one positive sign is that Apple’s book application supports the open epub format. We’ll see how this works, and how this interoperates with other devices over the coming days and months. (And it’s important, too – this is not Create Digital Books, but a lot of the information we want to read is published in e-books.)
  • It’s not an open computer. It’s not a Mac. The bottom line: you can’t do the things that an open computing experience allows. You can’t connect the hardware you want, develop or run the software you want, or have the open-ended experience computers have provided. That’s not to say a tablet or slate or pad or whatever you want to call it needs to be exactly like other computers. On the contrary: if you believe in the computing experience, you believe it should work in new and creative form factors. (There was a time when the clamshell laptop was a new idea, remember, a time when computers were giant bricks you plugged into a TV.)

Limitations are a wonderful thing. Specialized operating systems for mobile make perfect sense. But that’s a design decision – it’s about the interface, the developer tools, the hardware. A mobile device can work just as well without being tied to iTunes or with actual ports on it.

I know what the objection will be: but this computer isn’t “for” people like me. But that’s the whole problem. Apple threatens to split computing into two markets, one for “traditional,” “real” computers, and another for passive consumption devices that try to play games without physical controls and let you read books, watch movies, play music, and run apps so long as you’re willing to go through the conduit of a single company.

And, of course, this wouldn’t be worth my breath if not for my real concern: what if Apple actually succeeds? What if competitors follow this broken path, or fail to offer strong alternatives? The iPad today is a heck of a lot slicker than alternatives. It’s bad news for Linux, Windows, and Android, none of which have really workable competitors yet. It’s especially bad for Linux, in fact, which had a real chance to make its mark on mobile devices. Edit: Actually, one major advantage of a big, splashy Apple announcement – a number of those manufacturers have started talking about their rivals, already in the pipeline.

These issues have always been a matter of open debate. Jean-Louis Gassée infamously got an “OPEN MAC” license plate for his car during the early days of Apple Macintosh. The “open” vision was the vision we got. It’s the Mac II. It’s the expansion capabilities of the Mac that allowed PostScript support, which let the Mac launch computer desktop publishing and ensured the survival of the platform. And it was a vision in contrast to that of one (younger) Steve Jobs, who argued against expansion and nearly made the Mac a failure, another forgotten 80s oddity. It was after Jobs was forced out of the company that the Mac platform, the Mac community as we now know it were really forged, built on the expansion and flexibility those later Macs offered. That expansion port was what enabled early products from Digidesign, which would later become Pro Tools – the very birth of digital audio production.

Like I said, I’m biased by my own opinion. But it’d be unfair, after years of being hard on small developers when it comes to issues of openness, if I held back here. This is the world’s self-proclaimed “largest mobile manufacturer,” the company that, as it reminds us in every press release, launched the computing revolution. I wish I understood why they were now running away from some of the basic ideas that made that revolution possible.

This is what I asked in January 2007 on this site, shortly after the original iPhone was launched:

“1. Will Apple lock down the iPhone, blocking Flash, Java, custom widgets, and open development from its new platform?

2. Could Apple’s multi-touch patents actually stifle growth of new, interactive displays?”

Unfortunately, that turned out to prescient. As for point #2, and perhaps no fault of Apple’s, it’s apparent that multi-touch gestures are now missing in prominent platforms like the Android because of fear of litigation. (Yes, the Droid in my pocket has multi-touch and even a multi-touch API, but nothing in the shipping apps, apparently because someone’s legal department got involved.)

And as for point one, just compare what you can do with a Mac to what you can do with an iPhone.

Ironically, at that same show, I saw the very thing the Mac users most badly wanted: a Mac tablet. But because an independent developer had to hack that product together, it was overpriced and not terribly useful. At the same time, I know some people bought them, because that’s what they wanted. They wanted a Mac tablet.

Ironically, the biggest disadvantage of the iPad is that it’s not a Mac. So now we wait and see if someone can come up with intelligent new tablets that are at least more like PCs.

I know who I’m rooting for. And it’s not this.

Clarifications / thoughts from comments:

Of course, comments are here so that we can have a spectrum of opinions, and believe me, I do read and listen – including (sometimes especially) those with a different perspective than my own.

Some issues worth clarifying, respective to the above:

Several readers pointed out that I’m oversimplifying some of the relative historic “openness” of Apple. When the “Open Mac” battle was raging in the early Mac days (leading to the SE and Mac II), the connectors were indeed often still proprietary. The question was more whether to have ports or expansion at all. In the defense of the early Apple engineers, recall that, with the exception of formats like serial, standards were not as evolved as technologies like USB today. Even though there were already IBM clones, they were clones of IBM PCs, literally, not the open-ended PC market we have today. So readers are absolutely right – I was blurring some of the issues here. At the same time, this only underlines my point.

We’re again revisiting the question of what “consumers” need. The reason Jobs was opposed to ports, expansion, and the general ability of a user to service or upgrade a machine was because he perceived a need for a “consumer” device. In other words, he was making the argument then that his design is making now, and that some commenters are making, as well. Jobs was forced out of Apple, and the “Open Mac” won – and the rest is history. But my devil’s advocate question would be, given that computers with expandability won out in the 80s, why are we in a rush to eliminate that functionality now, in 2010, when even average consumers are more demanding and less afraid of technology? Is that who this is really for, or by the very virtue of its limitations, is this just a toy for gadget lovers? (I’m not asking that rhetorically; I think the readers making this argument have a point, and I’d be curious to hear people follow up.)

The other question is whether Apple was “open” in the intervening time period. However, here I have to invoke some history. Apple under Sculley was working very hard on interoperability with IBM, even though that ultimately failed. The Mac platform may have run a different OS, but it also embraced and/or helped popularize serial ports (hello MIDI), SCSI, and 3.5″ floppy drives (standard storage for the time). Under Amelio, Apple even pursued cloning – before Jobs reigned it in. (I’m not arguing that was a smart business decision, but it did at least qualify as “open.”) Mac OS X and modern Mac hardware are replete with standards, the Safari team is by far the most active contributor to WebKit, and the Apple OS team continues to work hard on interoperability.So, I may have been oversimplifying, too, but I can at least say this particular product is not characteristic of some of the more “open” behavior of Apple in other areas.

Finally, many of the comparisons have been made to the Lemur. I agree the Lemur hardware is aging and the software is relatively inflexible (certainly more so than apps made with the iPhone SDK). As for specifics of how the devices compare in multi-touch accuracy, or whether users will be as satisfied with the iPad as a wireless controller versus the Lemur’s Ethernet cord, that remains worth discussing.

Side note: Nowhere did I say that the alternative to an iPad has to be open source. I’m a huge fan of open source and truly free software. But by the measures above, Windows qualifies as open.