UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Openness? No Thanks, I’ll Have An iPad

Posted by Brian Kelly on 28 Jan 2010

Apple IPadAfter month’s of speculation the iPad was announced yesterday And after a day in which many  Twitterers were responding to Steve Jobs’ announcement today we say the headlines in the press. The main photograph on the front page of The Daily Telegraph featured Steve Jobs with Apple’s latest creation and in an unusual display of agreement the technology correspondents of The Telegraph and The Guardian were in broad agreement: Claudine Beaumont, The Telegraph’s technology editor  described how her “first impressions of the device are largely positive. Apple has once again built a product that looks good and feels great in the hand, and the familiar user interface, borrowed from the iPhone and iPod touch, is perfectly suited to the bigger screen“. Meanwhile Bobbie Johnson, the Guardian technology correspondent felt that “For anyone who loves new technology, getting the first touch of a new Apple device is a little like laying hands on the Shroud of Turin, or seeing a unicorn: the first experience of a mythical object imbued with miraculous properties“.

We are now starting to see the blogging community giving their views. One of the first I saw was from Chris Sexton, IT Services director at the University of Sheffield. Her thoughts can be summarised in a few wordsyes, I am lusting to get my hands on one”.

So it’s a feel winner for the sector, then. And we can start to make plans for how we can exploit the potential of this device when the early adopters bring it into work and, a later date, how we can provide insitutional support for the device.

Or should we?  The Case against the iPad was made in a blog post by Timothy  B Lee.  Although Timothy is an Apple fan he is opposed to the closed nature of the iPad, in particular the app store which must be used to download new applications:  “The store is an unnecessary bottleneck in the app development process that limits the functionality of iPhone applications and discourages developers from adopting the platform. Apple has apparently chosen to extend this policy—as opposed to the more open Mac OS X policy—to the iPad.

I made a similar point in a post on “This Year’s Technology That Has Blown Me Away” in which I compared the open environment of the HTC Magic phone and the Android operating system with the closed nature of the iPhone.

However the post, which summarised a talk I gave at a Bathcamp meeting last year, was a tongue-in-cheek commentary of the Android device which has many flaws – I use my iPod Touch whenever a WiFi network is available and only use my Android phone if I have to use the 3G network (or need to make a phone call).

So although I’m not a regular Apple user I do find my iPod Touch a great device which I use every day – andI also recently bought a second hand iMac which I now use as my main machine at home (and which I’m using to write this post). And I can understand the reasons why Chris Sexton is lusting after the iPad and appreciate the similar reactions which I have come across from various techies at work and on Twitter.

And yet these tend to be the same people who talk about openness and open source.  Perhaps those words are just used as code when seeking to knock Microsoft and aren’t meant to be applied as general principles. Or they might be felt to be regarded as important in an institutional context but are not felt to be relevant for personal choices.  But what does this mean to the users; those who aren’t early adopters but may feel that comments about openness, open standards and open source are used to suppress use choice?

18 Responses to “Openness? No Thanks, I’ll Have An iPad”

  1. If the iPad was a replacement for my general purpose computer its closed nature would be a huge concern. But I don’t see the iPad as a general purpose computer, it is an appliance with specific purposes. The closed nature is a disadvantage but not an overwhelming one. Should I care what OS my iPad runs any more than I care what OS my washing machine runs?

    I think the iPad signals an important trend in IT: diversification. We’ll have information applicances in different form factors which disappear into the furniture. We shouldn’t apply all our old assumptions about computers to these new devices. I’ve blogged about this at

    • Thanks for the response. I think that I would agree with you – there is a context to issues such as ‘open’ and ‘closed’. The point about how this relates to appliances is interesting – I had a Freeview box (a Netgem) which ran the Linux operating system – but this provided no advantages to me.

  2. anon said

    Well, there’s open and there’s open. The iPad’s operating system isn’t open source, but the content largely is. After all, it can view web pages (in HTML, and open standard), play audio files (including MP3s, a more-or-less open format), and it sounds like the iBooks will all be in the EPUB format (an open standard which includes HTML, XML and CSS). We don’t know yet how easy it’d be to buy EPUB books from other online stores than Apples, but it’ll presumably be possible somehow (given that you can import songs and videos into iTunes).

    So perhaps open content, and the ability to easily store it and consume it, is more important than open source software?

    That said, the Apps (which can be considered a form of content) clearly aren’t open content, and can only be purchased from Apple and run on Apple devices. So it’s pretty closed on that front…

  3. Note that in an article entitled Apple iPad: bashed by bloggers around the web published in the Guardian Jack Schofield reviews criticisms of the iPad. In addition to the points I made he also mentions the lack of USB port and lack of support for Flash. This latter point is interesting: is a product closed if it does not support a proprietary format? Perhaps the answer is yes if the proprietary format is widely used.

  4. Les Carr said

    I too saw “the case against the iPad”, but surely any argument which depends on you believing that the App Store “limits the functionality of iPhone applications and discourages developers from adopting the platform” is just arguing that black is white in the teeth of some fairly strong quantitative evidence to the contrary. Jonathan Zittrain could get away with a whole book (The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It) on why the iPhone was closed before Apple released the SDK and the App Store; in a post app store world the arguments that the Web is Open and the iPhone Closed look a bit less convincing.

    • I would agree with you that the closed nature of the App Store has not hindered the development on a huge range of applications. I think the argument is more to do with the principle that a commercial company may veto such content. This has happened with content containing obscene language or is felt, by Apple, to be pornographic.

    • This is not quite right. Just because it is possible to write some apps, it does not mean it is possible to write all apps, even if we ignore the potential veto by the app store mods.

      It is a fact that the iPhone SDK limits the functionality of iPhone applications. Just look at applications like megazoomer and airfoil on OS X, the type of which are impossible on the iPhone.

      It is not a fact that the app store discourages developers of course.

  5. Jeremy said

    Closed or proprietary can have advantages for developers, for example if it provides you with an easier way (or only way) of doing what you want. It can then make it easier (or possible) to build applications than the alternative. But there’s a cost to that too, if you then want that application to work in other contexts, and that cost will be passed on to the consumer, whether in higher prices for software that could have been built more cheaply if there was only one phone/OS/browser/washing machine/whatever to build for. The cost will be there somewhere.

    So from the consumer’s point of view, closed platforms may be proximally a good thing if they make things possible or pleasant in a way that wouldn’t happen otherwise whilst at the same time being a bad thing because they fragment developers’ efforts, increase prices or result in lowest common denominator approaches. I know that we’re more likely to put resources into mobile-orientated web apps than iPhone/iPad apps because I’d rather provision an audience of 20x the size of the iPhone user base, and do so building on top of regular web tech. But if it’s cheap, easy and clearly beneficial to do something for iPhones alone, its closedness wouldn’t necessarily put me off.

    I think Anonymous Frankie is right in that on the whole it’s less the developer platform than the content purchasing and memory expansion constraints that are worrying.

    And Brian: “[Appleheads] tend to be the same people who talk about openness and open source. Perhaps those words are just used as code when seeking to knock Microsoft and aren’t meant to be applied as general principles.” Couldn’t have put it better myself. Double standards are alive and well in the geek community. But idealists aside it’s about finding a sensible balance for all sorts of reasons and as you say what’s right for a developer or work context may be less so in a personal context.

  6. I don’t think the lack of memory expansion slots is a problem – after all, this is a device that’s meant to be synced (sunked?) to a laptop of desktop Mac (or PC with iTunes). And going forward, it’s likely that you’ll be able to store extra stuff in the cloud.

    The content purchasing is fairly open too (assuming you can import ebooks to it in the same way that you can import MP3s and videos, bypassing the iTunes Store).

    It’s the inability to install or import apps from non App Store sources that’s the biggest bugbear. It’s excusable on some fronts (given that Apps can cause harm, in the form of poor performance, battery drain, security leaks and so on), whereas other content (audio, video, books) are non-executable. However, given the increasing ability to sandbox apps and prevent them from causing harm, plus the principle that the consumer should be able to accept the risks if they like, I think Apple should allow apps to be installed from third-party stores, and perhaps, one day, they will.

  7. I love your continuing embittered ramblings about your HTC Magic, as if the fact that the OS is open source has any bearing on whether it’s a terrible phone or not.

    Hardware made by multinational corporation: check
    Operating system designed and written by multinational corporation: check
    Applications available through dedicated app store: check

    Which phone am I talking about?

    • Hi Phil
      The problems I have with the HTC Magic aren’t so much to do with the hardware aspects of the phone, but the user interface and the lack of consistency across applications. These issues are do do with the operating system and the nature of development of the apps.

      • But what do either of these issues have to do with open source? You continually mention it explicitly as some sort of counterpoint to the “closed” iphone but the open source part is a complete irrelevance to the nature of the two app stores or the enforcement (or existence) of UI guidelines.

        You would do as well to compare consistency of bundled OSX applications using the Brushed Metal UI and bundled iPhone applications.

      • Hi Phil – rather than restating my views, if you agree with my views on the flaws on Android apps, I’d be interested in your reasons why this may be the case.

  8. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brian Kelly, Brian Kelly, Ingmar Koch, Ingmar Koch, Brian Kelly, UKOLN and others. Brian Kelly, UKOLN said: Openness? No Thanks, I’ll Have An iPad: After month’s of speculation the iPad was announced yesterday And after a … […]

  9. AM Doherty said

    I’ve had a few debates now about how the web remains a viable platform on these devices and that the benefits of installable applications are only applicable to higher end uses, Augmented Reality for example (or when you really, really need to give your phone a shake!).

    I’m more excited by the continuing proliferation of HTML5 support this device offers than anything else. Apple have gone to great pains to make Safari Iphone/Touch Web Apps integrate with the device – GPS access, SQLITE DBs, UI caching, Canvas interface, home-screen bookmarking, full-screen viewing.

    Higher end browsers on other devices now support much of the same features.

  10. Jeremy said

    O’Reilly Radar post on this subject:

  11. […] discussion kicked off by Brian Kelly, the UK Web focus at UKOLN highlighted the appeal of Apple’s devices – in particular their UIs (discussion on just how revolutionary the iPad hardware is being […]

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