Mon 5 Apr 2010
Everyone knows the iPad – Apple’s newest toy, a crossover between an iPhone and a computer. It is nice, sleek, innovative and will sell like hot cakes (in fact, it already does). But there is one paradigm change it pushes that I find troubling: Apple’s software distribution system.
Ever since “personal computers” (as they were called back then) made it to people in late 70-ies owners could load whatever software they wanted onto their machines. They could code their own, buy a copy or upload a shared (“pirated”) software. Whatever they wanted. No one knew what they have on their machines and no one could change that.
Apple’s model is that you can only get software from the central App Store run by Apple. Period. You can’t download off the Internet. You can’t buy a box at a media market nearby. You can’t use Open Source stuff from someone’s site. And you can’t make your own – unless you have another full-blown Apple computer and sign up for a special account in the Apple Dev program. That means your machine is no more entirely yours, it’s just a terminal to a store with shiny toys you have to pay for. And Big Brother Steve controls what toys are there.
This also affects the software business by introducing a new risk for software vendors. Normally your sales don’t depend on the operating system or machine maker. They can intimidate you, buy you out, introduce nasty tricks in the OSs new release you will have to work around, introduce their own bundled, free product to compete with yours (IE) but they don’t control your distribution. Host OS vendor could make your life harder but not kill you overnight.
Numerous times I’ve read complaints about Microsoft being a bullying, ugly monopolist – in fact I wrote a couple myself – but even in the maddest fit of furry Steve Ballmer can’t pull the plug on your entire business just like that. Steve Jobs can and will, with a smile. One day you might be selling hundreds of downloads of your app on the App Store and the next day your revenue stream is gone and your business with it. If that doesn’t make Apple an evil monopolist I don’t know what else they have to do to earn the title.
To be fair Apple didn’t invent this model. It was first introduced on a large scale by Amazon with their Kindle device. It is in fact a terminal to a paid library of books you can’t ever really own – you just rent them at a price to read them (I think Amazon’s stating that you “buy” them is misleading advertising). It is the ultimate perversion of the great concept of public libraries on steroids. Apple just applied that first to iPhone with great results and now it tries to do the same with computing. I’m afraid it won’t end with the iPad…
The thing is I can whine on my blog, and so can others, but this won’t change anything. The carrot, the bait is too big for both consumers and vendors. Consumers get easiest possible way to get software, vendors get instant access to huge market. So everyone will, sadly, play along. It could have been done better – for example through a community-run “App Store” or something – but for the time being the only thing I can do is buy a Linux-powered netbook and thus revert to my roots.