2010 is being proclaimed as the year of the tablet, with Apple leading a headlong charge into a new model of computing for consumers.
Apple's big idea is to expand the successful model of the iPhone; first the tablet, then later new lines of portable Macs, which might have run Mac OS X, will instead run versions of the iPhone OS. The promise is of a new kind of wireless computing, free of the bugs, security hassles and OS upgrades of the traditional personal computer model.
To its supporters, Apple will also save traditional media by making it easy to charge for content, while incubating a thriving creative developer community with a new route to market (the App Store); and customers will enjoy a simpler, more predictable user experience, which ‘just works'.
But to some, the abandonment of the freedom to do what they like with their hardware and software heralds a worrying retreat back towards the stifling era of corporate control of computing, once brilliantly attacked by Apple in its ‘1984' commercial for the Mac.
If the App Store model gains ascendancy, argue the naysayers, we face a future in which our personal data is controlled by corporations, who censor what we can access and who can dictate how we enjoy media that we've paid for.
Harvard Professor and author of The Future of Internet - And How To Stop It, Jonathon Zittrain, claims that the rise of ‘tethered devices', (such as smartphones and TiVos as well as Apple's tablet), will ultimately reduce choice, constrain creativity and even threaten civil liberties.
Apple may have [in its own words] ‘ignited the personal computer revolution in the 1970s with the Apple II', but it could also be leading the abandonment of the principles that drove the early PC revolution.
It's not just Apple, it's the cloud
Apple is not alone in pushing a post-PC paradigm. Google plans to enter the netbook market with Chrome OS, and Microsoft and Sony have invested billions in their respective games console platforms, in a bid to make them alternatives to PCs for many consumers.
This brave new world of cloud computing, centred around accessing data, media and runtime applications from remote servers, is where all the innovation, money and media interest is headed.
It's all in stark contrast to the traditional personal computer market, which is widely portrayed as a stagnating platform afflicted by malware, bloatware, and a leader, Microsoft, which has lost its direction. Apple may be selling more Macs than ever, but Apple's focus is on the next big thing, and that's not the traditional computer market, it's the App Store ecosystem.
Brave New World
On January 5, Apple announced that more than three billion apps had been downloaded from its App Store. There are now over 130,000 applications available from the App Store, created by over 28,000 developers.
Market researcher Gartner calculated that global revenues from mobile apps sales reached $4.2 billion during 2009, and that Apple accounted for over 99% of these revenues. Gartner projects revenues from mobile apps will approach $30 billion. If Apple holds on to just half of this market its App Store will generate $15 billion, of which it would take $4.5 billion (30%).
These conservative assumptions don't factor in the extra app revenues generated by an Apple tablet, or another format like an Apple TV or future Apple laptops tied to the App Store. And then there are the cuts in revenue Apple will take from publishing e-books, online newspapers, movies, and other media on these new devices.
And of course, after customers have invested vast sums buying apps and content, they are going to think hard before buying non-Apple alternatives.
On top of that the iPhone model enables Apple to maintain its high hardware prices with subsidies from its mobile network partners. What company would not want to expand this model across its range of high margin hardware?
It's all rather like Microsoft's successful Windows lock-in strategy for the PC, except much more so. ‘In Bill Gates' wildest, proprietary, monopolistic dreams, he was never taking a 30% cut of any software sold on the Windows platform. And he was never trying to restrict how people develop or distribute software for Windows,' says Zittrain.
‘At most, think how quaint this now seems: he was trying to control whether you saw the Netscape icon on a PC desktop, when you first took it out of the box. And that was the thing that got the world obsessed by the Microsoft anti-trust case for a decade.'
While Apple does not have a Windows-style monopoly of the smartphone market, Zittrain does have a point: Apple's proprietary approach to the iPhone exceeds anything that Microsoft attempted with the PC.
And it says something for the open philosophy behind the personal computer pioneers, of which Apple was a key player in the 70s and 80s, that Gates & Co were never able to truly dominate the platform.
The PC revolution
When the 21 year old Steve Jobs introduced the Apple II in 1977 at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco, it was more than just a piece of hardware; it was the embodiment of an idea that computing should be personal, autonomous and programmable. In other words, your computer was yours to do with as you pleased.
This was a cultural as well as a business revolution, and significantly a creative one. The Apple II's open software and hardware architecture attracted creative people to develop for it. Under the existing order, controlled by giants like IBM and DEC, there was little room for quirky individuals to innovate and create new kinds of software.
Just as two guys in a garage, Jobs and Steve Wozniak, created Apple, so it was two more guys - Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston - who came up with VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet for a personal computer. And it was Aldus' PageMaker which made the Mac a success, while creating a brand new industry, desktop publishing.
It's the unpredictable new ideas and breakthroughs that outsiders can bring to a platform that drive innovation and progress. That's why Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer used to break into the chant ‘developers, developers, developers' during some of his speeches.
App Store - developer's friend?
But with 28,000 developers and counting, and recent reports of two-man coding operations like Lima Sky becoming millionaires on the back of iPhone games, surely the App Store is encouraging a whole new generation of programming talent? And look at Tapulous, a small 20-strong iPhone games developer, which recently announced that its sales are approaching $1 million per month.
If you want to start up as an iPhone developer, you no longer have to approach a publisher and get distribution through stores; you can just submit your game to Apple, with minimal overhead, and if approved you get distributed through the App Store, the same as any other company.
Planet of the Apps, a documentary shown on the US CNBC cable channel in January, looked at the grass roots appeal of developing for the iPhone. Included on the show were a jobbing actor, a doctor, a bin man, two 13-year old boys and a start-up which specialises in turning people's ideas into apps.
According to CNBC, Apple receives around 1000 submissions from developers to get their apps ‘approved' and put on the App Store every day.
But is Apple, a secretive company at best, suited as an arbiter of what people can download onto their own devices?
‘No-one would be comfortable in a world where Microsoft had to "approve" every application on a Windows computer,' says Fred Von Lohmann, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Since the App Store opened, there have been numerous high profile reports of Apple rejecting apps for political or sexual content, or because Apple just doesn't want something which might compete with its own offerings or upset its partners.
Apple's refusal to approve the Google Voice, Mailwrangler and Podcaster apps seemed to be examples of Apple blocking software that could compete with its own current or future offerings.
Not surprisingly, Apple has attracted considerable flak from iPhone developers, many of them Mac loyalists, over the approval process. One was Joe Hewitt, who developed the Facebook iPhone app (and who in the past helped develop Firefox) and said he would no longer develop for the iPhone. He said his decision ‘had everything to do with Apple's policies' which he alleged were ‘setting a horrible precedent for other software platforms'.
It got so bad that Apple Senior VP, Phil Schiller, granted a rare interview in which he defended Apple's approval process. ‘We've built a store for the most part that people can trust. You and your family and friends can download applications from the store, and for the most part they do what you'd expect, and they get onto your phone, and you get billed appropriately, and it all just works,' he said.
But the fact remains that Apple has gained tremendous power over its developers, especially if they have invested time and money in creating an app for the platform which is then rejected.
‘If you're denied entry to or rejected from the App Store, what other recourse do you have to sell your software? Absolutely none. If you are permanently denied access to the App Store facility, make no mistake: the size of the market for your iPhone software is precisely zero users total.
You're out of the iPhone business and there's no way around that,' says Frasier Speirs, a developer who is no longer working on new iPhone applications. ‘The only way to know what Apple likes and dislikes is to look at what's already on the store. It's a much safer bet than inventing something new.'
The bad old days
Von Lohman believes that Apple's success with the App Store will encourage its competitors like Google and Microsoft to follow suit, and that the result could be a throwback to the bad old days. ‘The tendency toward single gatekeepers controlling an entire ecosystem of tethered devices is a serious threat to liberty, innovation, and competition.
After all, this was precisely what IBM tried to do in excluding competitors for mainframe peripherals in the early days of computing,' he said.
At least IBM only controlled computing in the workspace. Today the reach of corporations and government goes directly into your home. In the US, EchoStar was ordered to remotely disable functionality in its customers' DVR players that had been adjudged to infringe on TiVo patents.
‘This shows how customers who have bought tethered devices could be hurt through no fault of their own because they happened to buy a product that infringes on someone else's IP,' says Zittrain.
Last July, Amazon simply deleted copies of George Orwell's 1984 from US customers' Kindle ebook readers, without their consent. The reason? It didn't have to rights to sell them the download in the first place.
However, Amazon's decision to reach into their customer's Kindles and remove information was, well, Orwellian. ‘If Amazon can do this, then so can Apple with the iPhone or Microsoft with the X-Box,' says Zittrain.
No-one's saying that the personal computer model has been ideal. PCs have gained a reputation for being buggy, insecure, and complicated, but at least when you buy one it's really yours.
It can't be bricked or zapped by its manufacturer, and you can put whatever software or content you like on it. If you don't like one piece of software, you can install a third party alternative, and no-one can stop you.
Wouldn't it be great if there was a PC which was secure, easy to use and yet free to do with you as you please? It's called the Mac.
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