We used to wonder what the iPad would look like. Then we asked what it would cost. Then what it would do, and what it would sell. Now everybody's asking what it means.
The consensus is hardening around the interpretation that the iPad is a consumer's device rather than a creator's tool. Nice distinction. What's the difference? You can't type easily on an iPad, or multi-task on an iPad, or run Office programs on an iPad. But you can watch, read, and play with just about any interface in the universe -- as long as the guardians at Apple headquarters approve. And there's the rub. Tech critics who yearn for an open-source world are miffed Steve Jobs has put a straitjacket around his shiny all-media slate, and that publishers are playing along. Aaron Gell, in a cogent critique ("Love freedom? Kill your iPad"), writes:
Just about every media company right now is in survival mode, so every time we make a choice to, say, read a magazine via an iTunes app rather than purchasing it at the newsstand, we're forcing a publisher to play by Apple's arbitrary and secretive rules.
The phenomenon Gell is describing has been called the Splinternet: the rise of platform-specific content networks -- iPad apps vs. Kindle apps vs. Android apps -- that threaten to replace the one-Website-fits-all-laptops world where we browse today.
The last 10 years were all about walls going down. Want to read the New York Times? Here's the whole thing online for free (plus multimedia!) on any computer with an Internet connection. This model has been disastrous for big media companies because eyeballs went where ad dollars wouldn't follow. But with the roll-out of new hardware like the iPad, publishers are ready to embrace a world of walls.
This is neither sinister nor concerning. It's not sinister because mainstream media publishers want to play by Apple's secretive rules -- for now. They see the iPad as a petri dish for pay models, where they can experiment with meters and bundling and paywalls with a small, elite group of consumers, and hopefully atone for a decade of throwing content onto the Web and hoping sufficient ad revenue followed. Second, it's not concerning because Apple won't be the only tablet in the market in two years. Here are 15 more flat computers in development, from HP's slate to Microsoft's two-screen booklet. If Apple's straitjacket on content is too suffocating for consumers and publishers, we'll flock to tablets with more liberal app rules and cheaper content and Apple will bend its rules meet market. Peace, Apple agonistes. The marketplace of ideas will survive the tablet age.