Nothing lost by asking

The CBC interviewed me last week in their downtown Vancouver studios, as Steve Jobs was on a stage some 800 miles or so to the south of me unveiling the iPad. And while I offered a lot of ooh’s and ahs, as well as a few cautionary notes, there was one thing I wish I’d mentioned. Because it’s the one thing that keeps me from sliding headlong into complete adoration for this new beast.

That’s not to say you’ll have any inkling from the raw tape of the interview that I’m not a complete Apple-yte. (Like that? Acolyte, only for Apple?) I gush about the size, rave about the user experience and drool over the price. God help me, I think I may have said “game-changer”. (In the final story, I just drool over the prize. So you’re spared most of it.)

But there’s still one thing that makes me hesitate: the Application Store.

Oh, sure – it’s going to be packed with apps of all different kinds. If the iPhone experience was any indication, I can’t wait to see the kind of innovation that developers bring to bear on it.

But the fact remains that, if you want to put an app on your iPad, you’ll need to shop at the company store. And that separates the iPad from, say, a MacBook. Or a netbook.

If you want to customize a Mac or netbook, you can. If you want to use a different email app, or extend your browser’s functionality with plugins, or install preference panels that change the way the system works, you can – and you don’t have to go to any Application Store to do it. You just download straight from a developer you trust, and you’re on your way.

Hell, you can even wipe Windows or OS X from your hard drive and install a whole new operating system (hello, Linux!) and – provided your tech chops are up to the task – it’s all perfectly straightforward.

Sure, there are risks: apps that don’t play well with each other. Badly coded memory-hungry extensions that slow your browser to a crawl. Malware. But a little due diligence can keep you safe, sane and computing the way you want to.

Not with the iPhone, and soon not with the iPad. Escaping the confines of the Application Store requires a measure called “jail-breaking” – and with good reason. You’re in a grey area, from a warranty and user-agreement standpoint, and you’re relying on the ability of a brave band of hackers to stay one step ahead of Apple’s crackerjack team of developers. (In fact, it’s less one step ahead and more a game of leapfrog; there’s often a lag of days or weeks between a release of the iPhone OS and the jailbreaking hack for it.)

Which means that, short of jailbreaking, you’re stuck with what Apple wants to give you. And I’m not saying Apple isn’t giving you a lot, or that it’s unattractive; as I mentioned, I was drooling with the best of them as the presentation unspooled (and that was just on the basis of liveblogging and a handful of still photos). But choice is taken away from the end user, and that isn’t a good thing.

It isn’t good for tinkerers. It isn’t good for experimentation. It isn’t good for innovators.

Peter Kirn makes a case on the Create Digital Music blog that the iPad’s very attractiveness makes its lack of openness all the more dangerous:

Apple threatens to split computing into two markets, one for “traditional,” “real” computers, and another for passive consumption devices that try to play games without physical controls and let you read books, watch movies, play music, and run apps so long as you’re willing to go through the conduit of a single company.

And, of course, this wouldn’t be worth my breath if not for my real concern: what if Apple actually succeeds? What if competitors follow this broken path, or fail to offer strong alternatives? The iPad today is a heck of a lot slicker than alternatives.

Now here’s the thing: most people don’t want to jailbreak their iPhones. They’re happy with the standard suite of apps that come included, plus maybe a few others they download from the Application Store. And they would be hugely unhappy with the degree of risk and need for tweaking and vigilance that jailbreaking would entail.

These are users who just want the damn thing to work, and they deserve that choice – and Apple’s done a pretty good job of giving it to them. (Not that it couldn’t do better, judging by the tales of capricious and arbitrary App Store decisions.)

But Steve, how about releasing another iPad? You’ve embraced at least some degree of openness with the iPad’s ebook standard, and with the fact that the 3G iPads will be sold unlocked. How about adding another item to this lineup, alongside the locked-down iPads, and selling a truly unlocked iPad, one that doesn’t limit us to the Application Store for software, to native apps for features like email, or to the iTunes and iBook Stores for content?

We’d be able to tinker, customize and experiment to our heart’s content… and you just might get a few clever ideas worth incorporating into future editions.

I’d probably pay more for that than the locked-down iPad. And what’s more, I’d feel a lot truer to the spirit of openness, innovation and the free flow of information that’s animating the digital communications revolution.

Whaddaya think?