No it’s not a generative platform but does it matter?

A lot of people have written a lot about Apple’s new toy. A lot of people are upset it doesn’t live up to the hype and lots of people point out that it’s a closed platform and not really a proper computer; some worry about what all this might mean for children learning how to code and what it means for who controls your computer. And they’re all probably right, or not — but I’m not convinced that’s the point — I think it might provide a great opportunity for Web developers.

The Apple iPadTwo best pieces of analysis, I’ve read, of the iPad and what it might mean for the future of our personal computers come from Jonathan Zittrain and Steve FrankIn the FT, Zitterain points out:

The openness on which Apple had built its original empire had been completely reversed.

[…]

The iPhone’s hybrid model of centrally controlled outside software is already moving beyond the smart phone. This is the significance of the iPad. It could have been built either like a small Apple Macintosh – open to any outside software – or as a big iPhone, controlled by Apple. Apple went with the latter. Attach a keyboard to it and it could replace a PC entirely – boasting plenty of new apps, but only as Apple deems them worthy.

But as s Steve Frank explains the significance of the iPad isn’t the iPad it’s what it means for future PCs.

[today’s] computers are general purpose, do-it-all machines. They can do hundreds of thousands of different things, sometimes all at the same time. We buy them for pennies, load them up to the gills with whatever we feel like, and then we pay for it with instability, performance degradation, viruses, and steep learning curves.

But the iPad and the computer’s of tomorrow are:

… task-centric. We are reading email, browsing the web, playing a game, but not all at once. Applications are sandboxed, then moats dug around the sandboxes, and then barbed wire placed around the moats. As a direct result, New World computers do not need virus scanners, their batteries last longer, and they rarely crash, but their users have lost a degree of freedom. New World computers have unprecedented ease of use, and benefit from decades of research into human-computer interaction. They are immediately understandable, fast, stable, and laser-focused.

Steve Jobs claims that Apple took this approach with the iPhone because you don’t want your phone to crash as often as a PC, which is true – I don’t – and that he had allegedly banned Flash from the iPad because “most Mac crashes are due to Flash”. But there’s another, more likely reason, as Michael points out, it could also be:

Apple’s attempting to own / lock in other people’s customer relationship model […] apple wanna own that relationship [because] it’s about owning the gateway to culture. Owning the point of sale is one thing; owning the point of subscription [is] quite another. Subscriptions map to habbits + hobbies + viewpoints.

Michael’s analysis certainly feels right – but that doesn’t mean that Apple will get away with it. If you look at most iPhone applications there’s really no reason why they need to be phone applications – there’s no reason why they couldn’t be web apps. And while that’s true now it will be even more true as HTML5 becomes more widely adopted. This isn’t anything particularly original, indeed Steve Jobs suggested the very same thing in 2007 when asked about the iPhone SDK – he suggested Safari.

The success of the Apple iPod store has proven that Steve’s view wasn’t held by most people – they wanted to build phone applications and people want to download them. I can understand why, from  a developers point of view the app store is a great market place and it allows you to monitise access to your app in a way that people don’t seem to tolerate on the web; and from an end users point of view it’s convenient and fits with most people’s expectations of what an application is.

But what was true for a phone now might not be true when it comes to the iPad, especially with HTML5’s APIs, including geo-location and offline storage capabilities (supported by Safari), tools such as jQTouch and the increasing awareness of web apps such as Google Docs, Latitude and Voice by the public at large.

It’s true we can’t build all apps as web apps — games in particular will need to remain native iPad/iPod apps and I’m sure those publishers wishing to employ DRM will stick with iBook or iTunes but for lots and lots of content and data centric applications the Web is the open platform we can all use without Apple’s permission.

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