A battle is raging in the blogosphere about whether Apple’s new iPad is good or evil, since it is a closed and proprietary platform with a locked-down content system built in. But the iPad is unlikely to mean the end of hacker culture.

As often happens when Apple releases a new product, the conversation around the iPad has quickly changed from “Oooh, I want one!” and discussions of what arcane features it’s lacking into a debate over the eternal question of good vs. evil — or rather, open vs. closed, which in the tech community amounts to pretty much the same thing.

Although many have hinted at or danced around the issue — among them Twitter engineer Alex Payne in a widely read post and Annalee Newitz in a post/polemic at the io9 blog — the first person that I know of who flatly posed the question in good vs. evil terms was Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz, with a post entitled “Is Apple Evil?” Swartz’s point is that however seductive the iPad might seem, the essence of it is evil, because it involves Apple controlling everything — not just the locked-down platform, but every piece of content that comes to users through that platform. As Swartz writes:

“That’s not to say the iPad won’t sell, or that I don’t want one. The scariest thing is that I think it probably will. It’s clear that Apple plans for the iPhone OS to be the future of its product line. And that’s scary because the iPhone OS is designed for Apple’s total control.”

Swartz says the only reason he can see for pursuing such a goal is Steve Jobs’ “megalomaniacal need for control.” After declaring himself to be a huge Apple fan, and saying he would buy an iPad right now if he could, he says that despite all that, “for the first time, I’ve got a real sinking feeling in my stomach.”

Payne, meanwhile, declared himself “disturbed” after watching the launch, because the product looked to him like “an attractive, thoughtfully designed, deeply cynical thing.” As he explains:

“The iPad is competing with full-fledged (if small and ugly) computers capable of running arbitrary programs and operating systems. Play all the category games you want, but the iPad is a personal computer. Apple has decided that openness is not a quality that’s necessary in a personal computer. That’s disturbing.”

Payne says he’s concerned that because the iPad is meant primarily for consumption, and because the platform is so closed and controlled, the device could actually usher in the “end of the hacker era” in digital history. The future of personal computing that the iPad shows us, he says, “is both seductive and dystopian.”

Newitz says Apple’s control over the device and everything in it will return the computer world to a time of “televisions and strip malls.” Because the iPad is merely a media consumption device, rather than something that can be modified or used to create much content, Newitz says it has “all the problems of television, with none of the benefits of computers.”

“I know a lot of otherwise-savvy consumers and hackers who are already drooling over the iPad and putting in their orders. They hate the idea of a restricted device, but they love the shiny-shiny. I’m not saying that they should deprive themselves of this pretty new toy. What I am saying is that this toy represents a crappy, pathetic future.”

Evil, megalomaniacal, deeply cynical, the harbinger of a crappy and pathetic future (the Free Software Foundation calls the iPad “bad for freedom”) — none of this is anything Steve Jobs hasn’t heard before (for the good side of things, see Joe Hewitt’s post.) Similar criticisms have been leveled against the iPod and iTunes for years (Chris Dixon of Hunch deals with the quasi-religious open vs. closed question here, and says he would like Apple to remain closed). But is all of this heavy breathing over openness and creativity and the end of the hacker culture really something we need to be worried about? Hardly.

The reality is that hackers will continue to break open and get root access to things, installing workarounds and reconfiguring whatever they wish — just as they have with the iPhone. If anything, it will make them smarter because they’ll have to try harder. And even Apple isn’t immune to the marketplace: The entire app store evolved because of market demands, and the open web will continue to put pressure on the company to be more open (the advent of app-like sites through HTML5 — which has allowed Google Voice to appear on the iPhone — will likely hasten that process).

If anything, the concern about Apple somehow killing our creativity or our open future give Steve Jobs and Apple far more credit for revolutionizing or impeding the evolution of computing than they likely deserve. It’s a little like conspiracy theorists assuming that the CIA and the FBI and the NSA and even more shadowy organizations are hard at work altering the very fabric of society to their own nefarious ends.

The reality, of course, is that most of those agencies couldn’t find their butts with both hands, and have a hard time even battling a cyber attack now and then, let alone planning some huge, ultra-secret conspiracy.

That’s not to say Apple isn’t a very smart company, or that its products aren’t influential — they are, in many cases far more influential than their sales would indicate. But to assume that just because the iPad runs on a locked-down phone OS or has an iTunes-style content platform that the foundation of our entire digital culture is at risk seems a bit much.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user zoomar, in-post photos courtesy of zoomar and Flickr user Helico.

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  1. Tech Introvert Friday, January 29, 2010

    Apple still sells computers. The iPad is just a media browser, not a personal computer. How is it being declared evil while an OS whose sole purpose is to generate ad revenue for an existing monopoly (Chrome OS) is considered revolutionary and good?

  2. Sex, Technology and iPad | Dirty | Sexy | Pretty | Fun Friday, January 29, 2010

    [...] for visiting!Less than a week after its release and Apple’s iPad tablet is the subject of positive and negative criticism. From Oceania to the Pacific, discussions are fraught with anxiety. Will this gadget ruin [...]

  3. I said it a year ago on this very same blog, but it bears repeating again:

    “Openness is just an attribute -– it’s not an outcome, and customers buy outcomes. They want the entire solution and they want it to work predictability. Only a tiny minority actually cares about how a given device or why it works. It’s little wonder, then, that the two device families that have won the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of consumers, developers and service providers alike (i.e., BlackBerry and iPhone) are the most deeply integrated from a hardware, software and service layer perspective.” – http://bit.ly/4lfbF

    Some of the spin on Apple trying to control or being evil is just silly, in my opinion. You don’t fault a restaurant for not letting you hack their recipes or change the table cloth to one of your liking, and Google doesn’t let you to access, let alone modify, their index. Heck, they don’t even make transparent what their spread is on AdWords/AdSense.

    The point being, that Openness is not an absolute, just as Good/Evil isn’t. Do many developers wish they could do “anything” on iPhone? Sure. Do I wish I could dunk a basketball. Sure.

    In other words, wanting isn’t the same as needing, or even being good for you.

    Do I fear a world where everyone so totally loves Apple’s products that we end up with less broadly open solutions? Hardly, if it leads to more satisfied consumers, a more deeply engaged developer base and a broader, more diverse mobile economy.

    Sounds pretty good to me.


    1. Well said, Mark. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    2. Best comment ever, sir. Thanks bringing the voice of sanity.

      I’ll take you one further, though, re: the spin on Apple being “silly”. I think it’s flat-out selfish. Going to tech blogs these days is like reading political websites. The drama and danger is there to get clicks. No sane person, techie or not, would believe that Apple’s approach could lead to the apocalypse of technology. They make products, the best way they know how, in order to make money and satisfy customers. And they do it really really well. All these companies coming out of the woodwork to criticize Apple? They’re not generating the same buzz with their products, so they’ll attempt to generate it with their indignation. Spare me.

  4. Debating open/closed in the geek community is like debating religion, politics, and sex for everyone else: a proxy for our fears and a pulpit for our opinions, wrapped in a satisfyingly unanswerable series of questions.

    I don’t tend to take either side (largely because the market has a way of managing this most of the time), but I do get tired of “open advocates” labeling organizations who create custom systems as evil. My parallel for them is their home. A house is built from materials sourced from the commons—concrete, steel, glass, wood, etc—that is then arranged into a unique stack; highly particular systems that the home owner has purchased, arranged, and displayed to their taste. And somewhere along the line—largely after they’ve paid everyone for their materials and craftsmanship—this bundle of resources shifts from open systems and protocols to something under lock and key that the owner controls. I can’t walk into Newitz’s home and take his couch or re-arrange his plants. Even without the law, this is clearly wrong. Yet somehow everyone wants to walk into Job’s house and demand that he change things.

    Why Steve hasn’t taken to sitting on his porch with a shotgun is beyond me. (Perhaps he’s too busy making things?)

  5. Thank you for finally bringing a little bit of reason and common sense back into the discussion.

    1. My pleasure, Chuck :-)

  6. I found Alex Payne’s screen to be self-contradictory and non-sensical. It’s like he has concluded that any “closed” system is incapable of allowing user the freedom to create, thus iPad is the antithesis of creativity.

    What a load of crock.

    I guess he missed the Brushes demo and how artists are using it create actual printed covers for the New Yorker. Or maybe he missed the fact the iWork allows you to create documents.

    The nonsense of all those “open” advocates is getting tiresome. It’s like listening to Lenin or Stalin give grandiose speeches about the rights and superiority of the proletariat while they go about imposing an absolutely rigid worldview on everyone around them.

    I guess it’s beyond them to explain how Apple has advanced open standards like HTML5 while “openness” advocates like Microsoft want you to use ActiveX and Adobe wants you to you Flash.

    Why is that the people who shout loudest about the “evil” of others the ones who are the most unhappy with the happiness of others?

  7. The Lone Deranger Friday, January 29, 2010

    I will order one (WiFi 32GB) the day they go on sale. This digital tool is going to do 99% of what I currently use a laptop for, and I won’t have to waste a second thinking about how to make it work. On top of the ease of use, there’s these three magic words: ten hour battery.

  8. When will people come to the realization that the PRIMARY driver of the Mac’s, iPod’s and iPhone’s greatness is BECAUSE they are closed!!! These products CANNOT BE DELIVERED in a Windows or Linux or otherwise open environment. This is so brain-dead obvious that it is excruciating listening to people like Payne waste oxygen on the topic.

  9. The understanding of what “open” means in the comments seems fairly skewed.

    @Tech Introvert – Chromes OS is not a monopoly, you could pick up the code from Chrome OS and call it Tech Introvert OS, and use all of the ideas/code from the OS to make your own OS, which people are, in fact, doing.

    @Mark Sigal – The restaurant analogy is off, because you can go to a restaurant, decide you like their onion soup and try to imitate it – with any of your own modifications – at home without being sued by the restaurant, which you can’t do with proprietary code, or Apple code

    @Mark Ury – The house analogy is also off, again because Steve Jobs is patenting his house design so that no one else can design a similar house or modify his house design – with Apple suing others for trying to put Snow Leopard on non-Apple approved hardware as a good example.

    @pwb – check out the Notion Ink Adam with Chrome OS, or Ubutnu Moblin (or any of the other Moblin Netbook OSes) if you want to see that Linux can, in fact do better than the iPad, and of course, at a much lower price.

    And as a general point, whether or not an individual idea is good doesn’t necessarily have bearing on whether it argues for the value of open vs closed source code in general. And microsoft has and can affect our digital future, or do you not have any idea why Flash is a web standard, and why Apple is so vehemently opposing it?

    And when I see articles like this, or Farhad Manjoo on Slate.com talking about how great Apple technology is because it is so damn profitable, I wonder what tech journalists think their jobs are. I don’t care whether Apple makes more profits from the iPhone than google does with Android, I’m rooting for open platforms, which google is supporting and Apple is not. Is tech reporting really just business investor advice based on a company’s bottom line, or does tech reporting have something to do with the advancement of ideas? And ideas, of course, should be “open” or “public domain” or free to be freely used, modified, and spread.

  10. The best thing that the iPad does is rejecting Flash and the associated spyware and privacy violations that come with using flash.
    I agree that the iPad will not cause the total heat death of the universe. However I think that it will become the 21st century Lisa.

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