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01 February 2010, 17:31

Could Apple's iPad be the New Firefox?

By Glyn Moody

In a first of a new regular column for The H, Glyn Moody looks at the iPad: Most people seem to agree that the iPad is a slick piece of technology, and quite plausibly represents the next generation of
Zoom Apple iPad
Source: Apple Computer Inc.
computing devices. But many feel that the very qualities that make it so desirable also make it profoundly problematic, not least for free software.

Mind fattening

It was to be expected that the Free Software Foundation (FSF) would be against it – after all, the FSF sets such a high bar that few activities manage to win its approval. And its criticisms are certainly valid:

DRM is used by Apple to restrict users' freedom in a variety of ways, including blocking installation of software that comes from anywhere except the official Application Store, and regulating every use of movies downloaded from iTunes. Apple furthermore claims that circumventing these restrictions is a criminal offence, even for purposes that are permitted by copyright law.

However, in terms of threats to the underlying ideas of free software, these are nothing new. More worrying – because more subtle – is the following point from Alex Payne:

The thing that bothers me most about the iPad is this: if I had an iPad rather than a real computer as a kid, I’d never be a programmer today. I’d never have had the ability to run whatever stupid, potentially harmful, hugely educational programs I could download or write. I wouldn’t have been able to fire up ResEdit and edit out the Mac start-up sound so I could tinker on the computer at all hours without waking my parents. The iPad may be a boon to traditional eduction, insofar as it allows for multimedia textbooks and such, but in its current form, it’s a detriment to the sort of hacker culture that has propelled the digital economy.

This, I think, gets closer to the real problem with the iPad. It is not so much the fact that it is locked-down and closed, bad though that is: it is more that it implies a passive relationship to the system. Not only is the end-user not expected to fiddle with its innards, everything is done to prevent them from doing so.

But this passivity is actually far more thoroughgoing: the iPad is a device for consuming digital artefacts – be it approved apps or DRM'd digital media. Discouraging hacking is understandable for what is clearly a system aimed at the general, non-technical user; but discouraging creation - which is precisely what the iPad achieves – is far more troubling and runs counter to the prevailing trend of empowering users. It means that the iPad is essentially a digital re-invention of the book and television. Both invite easy consumption and neither encourages interaction: what we have here is more iCouchPotato than iPad.

Some see this criticism as an elitist way of looking at things – born of the hacker world's resentment at the loss of power the democratising iPad implies. As Fraser Speirs puts it:

The Visigoths are at the gate of the city. They're demanding access to software. they're demanding to be in control of their own experience of information. They may not like our high art and culture, they may be really into OpenGL boob-jiggling apps and they may not always share our sense of aesthetics, but they are the people we have claimed to serve for 30 years whilst screwing them over in innumerable ways. There are also many, many more of them than us.

Next: Real or make-work?

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