Welcome to our velvet prison, say the boys and girls from Apple.

Media criticism.
April 15 2010 6:48 PM

Apple Wants To Own You

Welcome to our velvet prison, say the boys and girls from Cupertino.

An iPad. Click image to expand.
Customers try out the iPad

Steve Jobs has gone from producing a computer—the original Macintosh—that he called "insanely great" to producing a computer—the iPad—that is totally insane. Actually, the iPad and its silicon predecessors, the iPod Touch and iPhone, aren't insane. What's insane is the perimeter mines, tank traps, revetments, and glacis he's deployed around these shiny devices to slow software developers to a crawl so he can funnel them through his rapacious toll booth and collect a sweet vig before he'll let their programs run on your new iDevice.

If you've not been following this controversy, here's the outline. In the beginning—which was the summer of 2007—Jobs and Apple released the iPhone. A wonderful touch-screen-operated telephone, camera, music player, Web browser, and messaging device, it could run any application you wanted—as long as the application came from Apple.

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The iPhone, unlike the personal computers that came before it, blocked any third-party software from running unless you staged a "jail break" that could void your warranty or even turn your expensive iPhone into a brick. As Jonathan L. Zittrain writes in his 2008 book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Jobs baked these restrictions into the iPhone for a reason. He wanted to make a foolproof appliance, free from viruses and spam and malware, one that didn't infect the delicate telephone system. But by authorizing what applications could run on the iPhone (outside of the ones operating inside of its browser), he also positioned himself to collect steep tolls from software developers when he opened the device to third-party applications sold through the Apple-owned App Store in 2008.

Although developers flocked to the iPhone platform—at the latest count, there are 183,905 available apps—developers have long groused that Apple blocks apps it says "duplicate the functionality" of its home-grown tools and applications (Google Latitude). Meanwhile, users have complained that the blue noses at Apple who approve apps are too eager to gong apps that use naughty language or whose content is considered too sexy (Wobble iBoobs) or too violent (Baby Shaker). The App Store, which takes 30 percent of every app purchase, is so restrictive in what it will approve that it banned political cartoonist Mark Fiore's app because, to quote Apple, it "contains content that ridicules public figures and is in violation of Section 3.3.14 from the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement."

Unless you're a captive of Steve Jobs' reality-distortion field, it's easy to see that Apple's rules are more about blunting competitors and creating a prudish atmosphere guaranteed to offend nobody than they are about throttling viruses and improving the user experience. I don't think Apple should be enjoined from imposing its dictatorial edicts about what can and can't run on iPhones, as long as consumers know the score going in.

But do they know the complete score? With the release of the iPad, Apple has hastened its censoring, competition-blocking ways. Even though the iPad doesn't connect to the telephone system, Apple is still insisting on locking the device down as though it were an iPhone: No third-party apps can run on it unless they're approved by Apple.

Apple wants to play gatekeeper so it can establish itself as toll-taker. Seeing through this ruse are Frédéric Filloux, Jim Stogdill, and Cory Doctorow, whose dispatches have broadened my understanding of what sort of game Apple is playing. Stogdill, who writes for O'Reilly Radar, and Filloux, who writes for Monday Note, agree that what Apple wants is to replace the commodity-distribution channel that is the Web with an Apple-owned distribution channel for applications, music, movies, books, and anything else that can travel down a wire or through the ether.

In Stogdill's telling analogy, you "aren't buying a computer when you buy an iPad, you are buying a 16GB Walmart store shelf that fits on your lap—complete with all the supplier beat downs, slotting fees, and exclusive deals that go with it—and Apple got you to pay for the building."

Apple's insistence on control should worry both consumers and producers. Magazine publishers are already complaining about the iPad because Apple demands the same 30 percent cut of all magazine purchases made through its tollgate. Publishers "get very little information about their readers in return," reports the Wall Street Journal. Reader information is essential to selling advertising and building circulation. Random House, alone among the big publishers in resisting the iPad, says the "agency model" that Apple mandates would likewise enrich Apple at Random's expense. This week, Apple announced plans to further leverage its control over iPad and iPhone advertising with its "closed" iAd advertising platform. Meanwhile, software developers are raging against Apple's new policy that limits the programming languages that can be used to create apps for the iPhone and iPad. Apple says, again, it's about improving the user experience; some developers say it's really about keeping Apple in control.

Apple isn't the only behemoth bullying its way in the marketplace. Filloux identifies Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Yahoo as companies seeking to replace (or augment) the commodified Web with something more proprietary and lucrative. Apple is just the most conspicuous in its efforts.

In puncturing the iPad illusion, Cory Doctorow applies a tinkerer's and an intellectual's passion: It's a dumbed-down, sealed-shut device designed to make its owners into passive consumers. The cheers for the iPad's alleged simplicity, he declares, remind him of the way some people talked admiringly about AOL in its salad days. They said AOL's simplicity and wholesomeness would trump the chaos and perversity of the Web, a prediction that flopped, he notes.

There's nothing unkosher with Apple wanting to profit from every app running on the iPhone-inspired gizmos in its stable or with using its success to win better terms for itself at your expense (and the expense of its competitors and collaborators). But just because Apple's desire to make more money isn't unkosher doesn't mean you have to like the fact that it wants to own and control bigger pieces of the distribution chain.

Apple's avarice may not even be in its own self-interest. As Zittrain discusses in his book, the less locked-down a device or system is, the more ripe it is for innovation, and the more innovation lavished on a device or a system, the more valuable the device or system becomes to its users. Apple loves to point to the number of apps available at its store and the billions of downloads as evidence of the great creativity the iPhone has stimulated. But a Zittrainian response to those boasts would be this: You have no idea what sort of creativity and usefulness a device or network can inspire until you unshackle it.

Zittrain peppers his book with examples of "killer" applications that nobody could have imagined emerging from uncredentialed developers. A hobbyist in Tasmania wrote Trumpet Winsock, which allowed Windows PCs to access the Internet. A pair of students wrote the first graphical PC Internet browser in three months. He continues:

Ideas like free Web-based e-mail, hosting services for personal Web pages, instant messenger software, social networking sites, and well-designed search engines emerged more from individuals or small groups of people wanting to solve their own problems or try something neat than from firms realizing there were profits to be gleaned.

By walling off his newest devices from the unsupervised experimentation that improves a gadget, Steve Jobs is committing a kind of parental abuse: He's preventing the iPad from becoming the insanely great thing that it really wants to be.

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Fanboys! I await your denunciations and praise in the comments section below. But be forewarned: I will destroy all the i-devices in my home if you make it too personal. Prefer one-on-one to the innovation of the public sphere? Then send e-mail to my walled garden: slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Use your iPads to follow my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate's readers' forums; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word iPad in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.