The iPad and the sealed hood

Many big guns of the blogging world have recently commented on the fact that the iPod, if successful, will bring a locked-down, iPhone-like approach to app distribution and development to a device that will, in part, be a replacement for “normal” laptop computers.

This is both good and bad. It’s good in the same sense that replacing manual transmissions with automatics makes it easier to drive a car, without affecting the basic functionality (see John Gruber). But it’s bad because it may make it harder to “tinker” with computers, which is, after all, how many of us first fell in love with computers (Mark Pilgrim). The iPad is like an “iPrius,” says Jim Stogdill: it packs fantastic technology, but its hood is basically sealed shut.

(Cue joke about the many-handed economist…)

As a consumer, I am worried that I will be limited in the kind of apps that I will be able to run on my iPad, assuming I’ll buy one. Apple does seem to exert tight control on the iPhone app store, after all. Will they behave differently when it comes to the iPad? This is clearly a concern.

On the other hand, I am less worried about the implications for “tinkering.” First of all, it is certainly true that cars have become increasingly sophisticated over the last 20 years, to the point that it is virtually impossible for enthusiasts to service their own vehicles. However, it is equally true that new cars are still being designed and developed these days! Someone must be doing the designing, and my guess is that many active designers and engineers did not fall in love with cars by messing with their own engines. In fact, engineering seems to be a thriving major, at my university as well as elsewhere: see this publication (especially pp. 37-38) for details.

Second, I don’t see “regular” computers disappearing from the scene, or even being relegated to software development alone, unless future-generation iPads and other tablet PCs provide essentially equivalent functionality. As an example, my typical workflow involves keeping the following programs open at all times:

  1. Textmate, to edit tex files
  2. Skim, to preview PDF files generated by pdflatex & friends
  3. Preview, Apple’s PDF viewer, to consult related papers, etc.
  4. Safari, to hunt other papers of interest, or peruse Google Scholar’s excellent bibtex export feature
  5. Mail and iCal for obvious reasons

If I can’t multitask the above programs, I simply cannot use the iPad as my main computer. Now, items 1 and 2 are probably idiosyncratic; many outside of academia will probably use Word instead. However, I guess that most people with jobs that involve some form of research and/or “creative” writing would have a very similar set of programs running at all times, and perhaps others as well (e.g. Excel?)

Also, I do not just need to multitask. It is essential that I be able to share data among different programs: for instance, save a file that was emailed to me, edit it, typeset it, and email it back to a coauthor. It is not clear, at this point, whether the iPad will allow any of this. As I understand, the iPhone does not (this is related, but there are complicating factors, so I’m not 100% sure. Comments?) Again, I think this would be a major issue for many people (Andy Ihnatko has similar comments).

Now please indulge me: I’m about to invoke the Sacred Market Dogma. If enough people have a need for “regular PCs,” then either (1) PCs will stay with us for several, so our tinkering urges are safe; or (2) the iPad will evolve into a device that offers much, if not all of the flexibility of regular PCs; it will just present that functionality differently. Again, tinkering will be safe.

If Apple were to eliminate the Mac altogether, and try to force upon us a device such as the iPad that was introduced last week as a replacement… well, I will go out on a limb and predict that, in that scenario, Apple’s market share would drop significantly. People (academics included) need to get real work done—sometimes! But I would be shocked if that really came to pass. After all, Steve Jobs was very clear to position the iPad right between the iPhone and the Mac.

Bottom line: I’m not panicking just yet 🙂

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