Apple and the iPad: Beyond Good and Evil

As often happens when Apple (s aapl) 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.