Apple's iPad: New Device, Old Restrictions

Warning: I am about to say some critical things about a device that, according to its creator, is both magical and revolutionary. If you're the kind of person who thinks that Apple can do no wrong and that anyone who says otherwise is loco, proceed with caution.

Apple iPad
Still with me? Good. Like most tech enthusiasts, I've been devoting a decent amount of thought to Apple's newly announced iPad over the past 24 hours. Maybe you've heard of it; from what I've read, it's already changed the world and broken the Internets -- no small feat for a product that's not even on sale yet.

The Web's fairly divided when it comes to opinions on the long-fabled Apple iPad. Analyses aside, I think it's pretty safe to say there'll be no shortage of folks lining up to buy the thing the night before its debut; I certainly wouldn't question its potential for appeal among the legions of Apple fanatics. For people not firmly in the Apple camp, however, I would question the value of the iPad over upcoming alternatives, given what we know so far.

Apple's iPad: A Question of Culture

Apple iPad Analysis
Here's the thing: People who love Apple tend to be OK with certain things. They tend to be OK with the fact that their mobile devices don't allow for multitasking or Flash support; they tend to be OK with the fact that they can install only applications approved by Apple. The lack of a removable battery isn't necessarily seen as a significant issue. And that's fine -- hey, to each his own.

As an Android user, though, I value the freedom to use my device as I wish. I like knowing that I can install something like Google Voice or an NES emulator without my manufacturer's blessing; I like knowing that, if I so choose, I can install some random app a friend is developing without having to jailbreak my phone and void my warranty. I like being able to fully customize my phone -- and yes, I like being able to run programs like Pandora and Fring in the background while I use other features of the device.

In my eyes, the drawbacks of Apple's iPad are the drawbacks of Apple's overall philosophies. The company is all about closed-platformed, tightly controlled user experiences. Those principles can be very restricting on a smartphone. On a tablet PC, I suspect they would be even more blatantly confining for people not wholeheartedly committed to the Apple culture.

Apple's iPad and Tablet Competition

A slew of new tablets is on the way in 2010, including several running the Android operating system. (Does the design of this 10-inch MSI tablet shown at CES look familiar?) Compared to the iPad, these systems will allow you to run multiple applications at the same time, interact with Flash-driven Web sites, and install any program you want. Even if your primary goal with the tablet is to surf the Web and watch videos, don't you want to be able to use the apps of your choice to perform those tasks?

(Yes, Apple's App Store has many wonderful offerings -- but we all know there are also many things it doesn't and probably won't ever allow.)

Apple
Apple has a powerful brand, a brilliant knack for marketing, and a wildly devoted base of fans. And all of those factors will undoubtedly help maximize the iPad's reach. But I have to wonder -- outside of the hard-core Apple disciples -- if most casual consumers would be better served with a device that gives them the power to make their own choices.

To me, the shame of it is that Apple could probably build a near-flawless piece of technology; we all know the bright minds at Cupertino have more than enough inspiration and ability. But the company insists on maintaining such a tight grip on its users' experiences that people are forced to make significant sacrifices in order to reap the benefits the products provide.

JR Raphael is a PCWorld contributing editor and the co-founder of eSarcasm. He has his own theories as to how the iPad will change the world.

Product mentioned in this article

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  • Apple iPad Tablet Computer

    Apple looks set to shake up casual computing with a tablet that offers clever design and ease of use. But that streamlined approach may also be the iPad's weakness.

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