Keith Rarick

The Closed iPad is a Moral Problem

At issue here is control. Apple wants to control what you can and can’t do with your computer. (To my knowledge no one has claimed otherwise. Speculate all you like on Apple’s motivation for wanting such control; that’s beside the point.) I happen to find this morally objectionable.

Cory Doctorow and others have astutely noticed that people don’t respond much to arguments based on morality, so they framed their complaints differently, emphasizing practical effects. That was a smart strategy, because it let them be more persuasive, but make no mistake, this is a moral issue.

Unfortunately, some have failed to see past the surface of these arguments, causing them to write a bunch of increasingly irrelevant rebuttals.

Ultimately, I think both sides of this “debate” are falling victim to a massive confirmation bias. If you read a statement like this:

What makes products great is their innovation, their creativity, other ineffable qualities. Not the applicability of the first-sale doctrine.

You may just nod in agreement, or you may say, “hold on there, bucko, that’s a hefty assertion, but an assertion is not an argument (or even evidence).” Same goes for something like this:

Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

A hundred little implicit (dis)agreements get strung together when you read one of these essays, and determine whether you find it convincing or repulsive.

The confirmation bias is especially strong here because everyone dances around the real issue without saying it outright: the closed nature of the iPad is morally wrong. As with any moral issue, it isn’t something you can argue for or against effectively without a groundwork of shared values. Either you recognize this issue or not. Either you consider it important or not.

Folks, of course the iPad will sell lots of units, because, in spite of its moral bankrupcy, it is well designed, it appeals to mass-market consumerism, and it is backed by Apple’s powerful marketing machine. This may or may not qualify as “success”, depending on your point of view.

Untouchable Design

Why are Apple fans so worked up about this device, really? Because of its revolutionary design?

The bet is roughly that the future of computing:

  • has a UI model based on direct manipulation of data objects
  • completely hides the filesystem from the user
  • favors ease of use and reduction of complexity over absolute flexibility
  • favors benefit to the end-user rather than the developer or other vendors
  • lives atop built-to-specific-purpose native applications and universally available web apps

Thing is, that describes the litl spot-on. I think excitement about the iPad is much less about its design, and much more about the simple fact of Apple’s market position. If these radical design principles were really so important, folks would have been just as excited about the litl’s launch way way back in November.

This especially undermines all those put-up-or-shut-up arguments about how nobody else competes with Apple’s design and that’s why the iPad is great despite its closed nature. I have yet to see a single thoughtful comment claiming that the iPad is good while the litl simultaneously is not. If someone manages to do this, not through speculation, but having actually used the litl (and even if we may disagree on the details or the conclusion), then great. Until then, you can’t credibly claim that no-one but Apple produces good design.