Campbell: iPad’s place in computer world questionable

By Donald Campbell

The release of the iPad on Saturday hasn’t quelled the often contentious debates that… The release of the iPad on Saturday hasn’t quelled the often contentious debates that Apple raised when it announced the iPad back in late January.

Since then, many writers and techies praised the iPad’s innovative design and expressed excitement over the concept of a touchpad device running the light iPhone operating system.

Other authors, myself included, brought the iPad’s future position in the game of computer gadgets into question.

The big debate over the iPad is whether the new device has a marketable place in the world of consumer electronics has subsided, only to be replaced with a significantly more existential battle.

Many bloggers and columnists are questioning whether they’re okay with Apple’s control over the development and dissemination stages of the iPad. As with many arguments, the reality is a bit more middle-of-the-road than many would have you believe.

The entire argument lies around the fact that, without some rather clever measures, a stock iPad cannot have just any piece of code or program loaded on it. Software must be written using Apple’s development tools and approved before the Apple Apps store will “officially” distribute the software to iPad users. Apple can apply certain degrees of censorship, such as blocking applications whose functionality or subject matter is problematic.

The programmer does not have access to the fundamental underlying system of the iPad, as a programmer would in a Windows, Linux or Macintosh OS X general-purpose computer. Programmers are therefore limited to referencing the iPad’s features through a set of Apple-controlled tools called a Software Development Kit, or SDK.

The New York Times published an article on April 2, a day before the iPad’s official release, citing a blog that claims Apple’s restrictions will stifle software development innovation.

The blog presents a doomsday scenario for computer technology and touches on a criticism that has hovered around Apple for quite some time.

Cory Doctorow, the author of the blog, said that Apple’s grip could reduce innovation in iPad development, because following Apple’s license agreement would prevent developers from really tinkering with the iPad at its most basic levels.

The argument extends to the computer industry as a whole. If the iPad successfully shuts out competitors, users will have little choice but to use the iPad and accept Apple’s restrictions.

Apple used similar tactics with the iPhone and the iPod Touch. Developers must use Apple’s library of development tools to write software for both devices.

Truthfully, the reality is not nearly as dire as Doctorow would like to argue. The New York Times cites the fact that, despite Apple’s restrictions on the writing and distribution of code for the iPhone and iPod Touch, its App Store still boasts thousands of applications. The size of the App Store shows no sign of withering any time soon.

Apple’s development tools provide enough control over the iPad’s features that developers can still churn out many innovative pieces of software for all of Apple’s gadgets.

Innovation is also possible by defying Apple’s restrictions and library of license agreements. Because members of the hacking community want more control, they have thereforebeen hard at work “jailbreaking.”

Jailbreaking, in the context of Apple’s hardware products, is the process of removing Apple’s restrictions on the hardware system to give developers access to the nuts and bolts of the system, which allows for the flexibility to load any code on the device, independent of Apple’s input., an online outlet for technology news and blogs, announced on April 4, just a day after the iPad’s release, that the iPad was successfully jailbroken.

As evidence, the proud jailbreaker produced a video showing access to the iPad’s fundamental operating system. Jailbreaking is, of course, an immediate violation of Apple’s end user license agreements.

Apple’s restrictions may not be the doomsday scenario portrayed by Doctorow, but the company’s rigidity may give an opening to other device developers. Both Hewlett-Packard and Marvell Electronics have announced devices currently in development to challenge the iPad.

HP’s offering, The Slate, will run Windows 7. Marvell Electronics will produce the iWonder, which will eventually run the Android operating system on a bargain-basement iPad alternative.

Users who want to duck Apple’s tight grip will either thumb their noses directly in Apple’s direction and jailbreak their iPads, or will simply wait until some competitor produces a more open device.