Saturday, May 1, 2010

I'm Breaking Up With Apple

For the last month or so I've had iPad Fever. It's a fairly common ailment from what I hear. I've long been a lover of Apple products, and the iPad exemplifies why. It's a masterpiece of industrial and user interface design. It does exactly what it needs to do and does it well. But I'm probably never going to buy an iPad.

That sound you hear is my wife sighing with relief.

Every relationship has to be judged, at some point, for its long-term potential. My growing problems with the iPhone and iPad are not the physical products, but the company and future. I don't really have any hesitation telling people they would love a MacBook. But the iPhone and iPad are not MacBooks, and the differences in this case make a difference. Let me illustrate with a small example.

One of the reasons for my iPad Fever was the idea of iBooks. I love books, but when I say that I mean I love the content of books. I am fairly indifferent to the form factor books come in. The idea of having my entire library with me at all times, with the ability to expand it instantly on demand, is terribly, terribly enticing. I would love to switch almost exclusively to digital books at this point.

But suppose I bought my iPad and started buying my books through the iBookstore and reading them in the iBooks app. A few years from now, I might have 500 books. Now suppose that I no longer want to use an iPad. Maybe Steve Jobs left Apple and the new CEO drove it into the ground. Maybe some hot new company becomes the "new Apple" and their line of tablets and smartphones is just plain better. So I buy my new device and want to read my books on it.

I can't.

Well, that's not strictly true. It's more accurate to say that I can't legally. I am forced to either continue using Apple products forever or break the law to read my books that I purchased. It would be like (and thanks to Cory Doctorow for this analogy) if I bought a special Barnes and Noble bookcase, and it was illegal to shelve any books bought from Barnes and Noble on an Ikea bookcase. Also, I have to read them in a Barnes and Noble recliner.

DRM is practically useless. If put in this position, I would almost certainly crack the DRM on my books and transfer them illegally, but I shouldn't have to make that choice. Sadly, this applies not only to books, but to movies and some music as well (and other devices, such as the Kindle or Nook, are just as guilty). The iPad is a great media consumption device, but committing any significant amount of media-buying effort to using the iPad makes you either an Apple user for life or a criminal.

Note that this is not at all the case if I were to do the reverse. That is, I could use any number of non-Apple products with DRM-free media and then, if I decide that I want to plug back into the Appleverse for good I can bring my books and movies and music with me without too much trouble.

Some might be comfortable with committing to Apple for life. They do, after all, make fantastic products. But we just don't know what the future holds. And for me, there is also just something fundamentally, philosophically wrong in not getting full control of what I buy. Apple's lockdown doesn't only include media. They also act as strict gatekeepers to what software they will allow users to install on their iPhones and iPads. You are, more literally than ever, a user of Apple products, not an owner -- despite paying for them.

This wasn't always the case. While Apple has always bundled Mac OS exclusively with Mac hardware, once the computer was yours there were no substantial limitations on what you could and couldn't do with it. Nobody was stopping you from running any program you wanted, legally, nor was anybody stopping you from playing or viewing any media -- aside from that which was already DRM'ed, which wasn't really Apple's fault. But in the last few years there has been a steady and clear progression towards a closed ecosystem in which Apple products are no longer the user's, free to do with as she pleases. Apple products are increasingly focused on making an admittedly smooth and enjoyable experience at the expense of genuine ownership, freedom, and in many cases, creativity.

Equally troubling is the lockdown on development. What we get offered in the iPhone/iPad App Store is only an Apple-approved subset of the apps actually written. But we have no way to install any non-Apple programs without jailbreaking our devices, which is a never-ending cat-and-mouse game with Apple's official OS updates and, they claim, illegal as well. But worse still is the fact that Apple doesn't merely reject apps that are unstable or inferior, they also prohibit competition with their own apps and impose their particular moral vision on the selection. Apple can and does reject apps for any reason it wants, and in doing so, they restrict my choices in ways I'm not comfortable with.

Don't misread me. Apple is entitled to be a competitive, secretive company. Their vertical hardware-software integration strategy is one of the key reasons for the stability and sheer delightfulness of Apple products. Exercising full control of the experience virtually ensures that for the average user the experience is a great one. I don't think Apple is "evil," nor do I think anyone who wants an iPad or a MacBook is wrong for getting one.

As for me, I've decided that the Apple ecosystem is one I'm no longer going to be a part of. I will happily let my friends and family continue to use them unaccosted for as long as they are happy to use them. I'm not really going to evangelize on this point unless things get very, very bad. But when it comes time for me to buy a new personal computer just for myself, it's probably going to be a notebook running Linux. And when it comes time for me to buy a new phone (almost 2 years from now, thanks to AT&T's contract) it's probably going to run Android. And when it comes time to buy books, music, and movies online, I'm only going to if when I buy them they're really mine. That's just me.

So I'm sorry, Apple, I still love you dearly but we can no longer be together. If you get over your DRM addiction and open up a little, give me a call sometime. If I'm computationally single then, I'd love to take you back.