iPad

It’s taken me a while to understand the point of the iPad. I can type on a keyboard faster than I can press keys on a screen, so the iPad would not be useful for me as a computer. And it wouldn’t fit in my pocket, so I wouldn’t carry around the way I carry my phone.

I think I get it now, though. The point of the iPad is to read books, watch videos, and play games. For that, it is looks quite convenient. I can carry it easily from room to room, I can prop it up while I’m eating, I can hold it up while I’m in bed (I assume it’s not too heavy for that). That is, the iPad is not a computer and it’s not a phone: it’s a media consumption device. It’s only real competition at the moment are the various e-book readers, which tend to be limited to just reading books. The first version of the iPad apparently won’t have a camera, and I don’t know whether it has a microphone, but I’m sure that future versions will have both, and that they will be a good way to do video chat.

With that understanding, the complaints I’ve seen about Apple’s tight control over the app store are kind of irrelevant. I don’t want to run arbitrary programs on my books, and I won’t want to run them on an iPad either. When I want to run programs, I’ll use a computer. The app store will be mainly an alternative way to publish information–authors will be able to sell directly to you, rather than going through a publisher.

More troubling are the complaints about Apple’s tight controls over content distribution. If other companies emulate Apple and Amazon, then we are taking another big step toward tight control over copyrighted content and the elimination of some fair use rights. When my only copy of a book is on my Kindle or my iPad, I can’t easily lend it to my friend. When publishers stop making physical books, libraries will become far less useful.

I’ve written before about how copyright will vanish. The iPad points to a way to bring it back: to build copyright controls into the architecture of how people read books. This is the kind of thing Lessig talked about in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. Building tight copyright control into a general purpose computer is really really hard. Building it into a closed system like the iPad is much simpler. I’m sure that enterprising people will crack the iPad’s controls, but it remains an open question whether they can crack the controls while still letting the iPad continue to access the various stores that will provide content.

Whether these are reasonable concerns depends entirely on how well the iPad does. I have no plans to buy one myself—I wouldn’t buy one even if I didn’t have these concerns. That is quite different from the iPhone, which I did buy a couple of months after it came out, though I’ve switched to a different phone since. I can’t predict how well the iPad will do; if it is very successful, then we’ll really have to worry about copyright issues in the future.

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