Petri Wessman's weblog

Apple getting more and more Big Brotherish

There’s a big fight brewing out there, between Apple, Google, Adobe and many other companies. Apple is slowly edging into the “big player” role and is fighting very dirty. Not that Adobe’s slate is totally clean either, and bad old Microsoft is infamous for stuff like this… but as I’ve said before, Apple in a monopoly position would be much worse than anything Microsoft did even during their worst periods of dominance.

The latest spate of control freakish dickery is a modification to the app developer agreement, in which Apple forbids iPhone/iPad app development with languages (and tools) which aren’t natively Objective-C, C, C++ or Javascript. This targets a lot of stuff, including (critically) all cross-platform tools. In other words, Apple is dictating the programming languages that apps need to be originally written in. Techically, in this day and age, this is fucking insane. Sure, Jobs has some excuses on the subject, but ArsTechnica nicely picks those apart.

Daring Fireball provides an analysis that sounds right on the money. Apple doesn’t want developers developing for any other platforms, and they are doing all they can to hinder any sort of cross-platform apps. The moment the iPhone becomes “just one more phone”, they’ll have problems. Apple wants apps only on their phones, not on competitors’ models. And hey, I can understand that, from a pure business perspective. It’s a ruthless move, but it makes sense.

That doesn’t make it something that anyone sane wants to support. The whole of Apple’s Disneyfied walled garden app ecosystem is something that makes me deeply uneasy. Also, I have zero doubt that Jobs would push the same model on the OS X computer front, if he could just figure out how. Walled gardens and a captive audience? Sure. It’s a license to print money, without all that nasty “competition” stuff.

It’s actually quite analogous to DRM in music. When that came out, the “geeks” and technical people were vehemently opposed. The ordinary “man on the street”? He didn’t care. He thought the geeks were overreacting. He just wanted something easy, “who cares about all that technical and ‘freedom’ stuff”. Then, slowly, he discovered what the geeks had figured out long before: the system was broken, the music was nonportable and often stopped working at some point.

I feel a bit the same way about Apple’s iPhone/iPad ecosystem. It’s not something I want to support, sending money in its direction would feel “dirty” in the same way as paying for DRM’ed music would. Voting with your wallet is, after all, still a valid form of expressing an opinion.

The other side of the coin is the fact that Apple does tend to do beautiful and very polished products. At some point I do want a portable PDF reader, and at that point I hope there is an alternative to the iPad available. Me, I’m hoping to see an Android-based tablet. Rumor has it that Google is working on such, but… well, rumors are just that.

I’m rooting for Google to kick Apple’s ass, somewhat. Jobs is both the best thing that Apple has going for them and the worst. His perfectionist attitude has resulted in Apple climbing out of the 1990s proprietary, ultra-expensive pit that they had sunk into. However, that same perfectionism manifests in a total control freak, “Jobs way or the highway” attitude. With the more and more proprietary and closed direction Apple is heading in, there is a real danger that they will repeat the mistakes of the 1990s all over again.

I’m sure that hordes of Apple apologists will totally disagree, and quote some tired old “well, don’t buy one then!” refrain. That’s fine. Instead of typing additional words, I’ll just link to iPad: The Disneyland of Computers and Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either), both of which are views I mostly agree with.

I’ll have to reiterate: I do like many of Apple’s products, and love the attention to detail in them. I just hate the more and more obnoxious walled garden restrictions that surround the iPhone and iPad. That’s also the reason I’m more and more interested in Android.

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Well, like a lot of other people I followed the iPad launch event, and came away more than a bit disappointed. It’s just a big iPhone / iPod Touch combo, with all the restrictions that come with those.

Now, I’m potentially in the market for something like this. I have a metric fuckton of PDFs that I’d like to read, and which are cumbersome to read on a computer display due to the landscape display of screens and the difficulty of curling up on the sofa with a computer (even a netbook). However, this current incarnation of the iPad isn’t quite there yet.

My main problems with the thing are:

  • The display resolution of 1024x768 is quite skimpy. According to my quick and dirty tests it’s probably just enough to read most of my rpg PDFs… but not with full comfort in all cases. It’s doable, but a bit more resolution would be very nice.

  • The absolute lock-down to the Apple App store. This infuriates me, and normally would be a total deal-breaker. However, it depends on how I think of this device. If I think of it as a computer or a netbook, it is a dealbreaker. However, if I think of it as an ebook reader of sorts, it’s much less clear-cut – Sony Reader, Kindle etc don’t allow 3rd party apps either, in fact they don’t allow “apps” in general, period. So, even though I find the tie-in to be a big minus, it’s potentially acceptable.

  • No multitasking. This is the big one. I mean, come on… you mean if I’m (say) reading an rpg rulebook on this thing, and suddenly want to check something online (or use the calculator, or…), I need to exit the PDF reader app first? What is this shit? Did someone roll back the clock to 1980 suddenly? Even my Nokia phone multitasks (and yes, I use the multitasking ability there quite often). You’re telling me that a tablet computer can only run one app at a time? Wtf?

  • No expansion options. I mean, come on, why can’t you stick a standard memory expansion card in here? Well, sure, we know the reason: so you are forced to pay outrageous prices to Apple for that built-in memory instead. Also: no USB. Wtf? And yes, I know the thing has a iPhone-style expansion port – so I can hook up various sorts of dongles and maybe get some expandability. Hooray. Not wild about having N different wires hanging from my supposedly-ergonomic and mobile tablet.

  • How you move files to this thing is as of now totally in the dark. If it’s iTunes-only, via cable, then forget it – iTunes is a bloated piece of crap, and I’m not going to use a cable to update a device that has both wireless and Bluetooth. On the other hand, there have been rumors of some kind of remote-mountable shared directory, which sounds much more reasonable. If I can drag+drop files from my computer to this thing, I’m reasonably happy. So the jury is still out on this one.

There are others (lack of Flash, lack of Java, etc), but the above are the main problems I’m concerned about for my own use. Together, they put this device firmly in the “meh” zone for me.

Maybe Apple will add multitasking to the OS at some point, and maybe moving files to and from this thing will have some simple solution. In that case, I’ll start to consider the thing, at least as far as test-driving it with some PDFs and other documents goes. Until then… distinctly underwhelmed.

Added later: I’ve been told that (at least on the iPhone), while there is no multitasking as such, the apps do save state – so you can hop between applications, and when you return you’ll be in the same application state. I’m a bit sceptical on how fast that can work if, say, I’m browsing a 65 megabyte PDF and enter/exit the app multiple times… but ok, will have to test with a real iPad once they arrive. The real limitation is apparently the fact that you cannot run multiple apps at the same time, so you cannot have an active app in the background and doing stuff while you’re working on something else.

So ok, the situation sucks, but it’s not quite as bad as I feared. It’s still bad, though, the lack of real multitasking on a tablet computer announced in the futuristic year of 2010 makes Sad Panda sad.

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