Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss?

The weekend news showed exultant customers hoisting their newly purchased iPads over the heads in stunning images of triumph, transcendence and rapture. You gotta hand it to Steve Jobs. He knows how to stage a PR coup.

Too bad that the iPad is hardly a paragon of "freedom." It is actually a "tethered appliance," as tech guru Jonathan Zittrain puts it — a closed, proprietary system that enables Apple to control what we may do with the iPad and which new applications may run on it.

Even though software developers will likely generate thousands of new apps for the iPad, the little-discussed reality is that Apple will retain absolute control over which apps will be legally sold and used on the tablet. Like the iPhone and iTunes store, the iPad is encrypted with DRM (digital rights management). Apple will control how the system evolves and what freedoms users will have. (This, from a company that professes to dislike DRM and that once used the advertising tagline, “Rip. Mix. Burn.”)

Reminds me of that old Who song, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." I dunno about the refrain, however — "won’t get fooled again"? Hmm. Microsoft monopolized the desktop. Google is trying to monopolize online search and access to public domain books. Now Apple as the corporate gatekeeper to content?

It’s unclear if the iPad will actually become the default platform for books, magazines, music and other content. But if it does, the iPad design architecture is structured to shrink our fair use rights down to nothing, stifle competition and centralize control.

Corey Doctorow points out on Boing Boing why he’s not buying an iPad any time soon: it’s a closed, un-free platform. You can’t build what you want on it. You can’t take your purchased content with you to other platforms. You can’t share with friends and colleagues. What you can do is buy, buy, buy.

He notes that the iPad forces us to be mere consumers, and doesn’t let us be free human beings who can do what we want with our purchased appliances and self-created content: "The way you improve your iPad," Doctorow writes, "isn’t to figure out how it works and making it better. The way you improve the iPad is to buy iApps. 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."

Doctorow continues:

"The iStore lock-in doesn’t make life better for Apple’s customers or Apple’s developers. As an adult, I want to be able to choose whose stuff I buy and whom I trust to evaluate that stuff. I don’t want my universe of apps constrained to the stuff that the Cupertino Politburo decides to allow for its platform. And as a copyright holder and creator, I don’t want a single, Wal-Mart-like channel that controls access to my audience and dictates what is and is not acceptable material for me to create.

The last time I posted about this, we got a string of apologies for Apple’s abusive contractual terms for developers, but the best one was, 'Did you think that access to a platform where you can make a fortune would come without strings attached?’ I read it in Don Corleone’s voice and it sounded just right. Of course I believe in a market where competition can take place without bending my knee to a company that has erected a drawbridge between me and my customers!

Author Marc Aronson makes similar some other depressing points in an oped in Saturday’s New York Times about the cost of obtaining copyright permissions for e-books:

"We’ve all heard about the multimedia potential of the iPad, but how much will writers be charged for film and audio? Rights holders will demand a hefty premium for use in digital books — if they make their materials available in that format at all...."

Perhaps the most fitting capstone to this post is a recent video remix of the legendary Apple advertisement, "1984." That’s the one which a lithe athlete barges into an auditorium where an audience of robotic zombies are watching Big Brother on a huge TV screen — a not-so-subtle allusion to IBM, the 900 pound gorilla of the computer world at the time. In the remix, the same woman runs down the aisle and hurls the hammer — but this time, it crashes into an image of Steve Jobs is blathering on about the revolutionary freedoms of the iPad.

The new iPad is surely a smartly designed device. The company deserves a lot of credit for trying to advance the state of tablet technology. But should that it entitle Apple to own and control the culture that will take place on it?