I’m biased since he’s my advisor, but Ed Felten’s post about the iPad as Disneyland is probably the best critique of the iPad I’ve seen:
There’s a reason the restaurants in Disneyland are bland and stodgy. It’s not just that centralized decision processes like Disney’s have trouble coping with creative, nimble, and edgy ideas. It’s also that customers know who’s in charge, so any bad dining experience will be blamed on Disney, making Disney wary of culinary innovation. In Disneyland the trains run on time, but they take you to a station just like the one you left.
I like living in a place where anybody can open a restaurant or store. I like living in a place where anybody can open a bookstore and sell whatever books they want. Here in New Jersey, the trains don’t always run on time, but they take you to lots of interesting places.
Ed argues that the Disneyland comparison gives us reason to doubt that the iPad model will ever dominate the technology industry:
What makes Disneyland different is that it is an island of central planning, embedded in a free society. This means that Disneyland can seek its suppliers, employees, and customers in a free economy, even while it centrally plans its internal operations. This can work well, as long as Disneyland doesn’t get too big — as long as it doesn’t try to absorb the free society around it.
The same is true of Apple and the iPad. The whole iPad ecosystem, from the hardware to Apple’s software to the third-party app software, is only possible because of the robust free-market structures that create and organize knowledge, and mobilize workers, in the technology industry. If Apple somehow managed to absorb the tech industry into its centrally planned model, the result would be akin to Disneyland absorbing all of America. That would be enough to frighten even the most rabid fanboy, but fortunately it’s not at all likely. The iPad, like Disneyland, will continue to be an island of central planning in a sea of decentralized innovation.
I think part of the reason you’ve seen such a divergent reaction to the iPad between geeks and non-geeks is that geeks have a much better idea of what’s going on “behind the scenes” in the software development process. We know enough about how software gets made to have a pretty good idea of the preconditions for a really vibrant software platform. We know that a platform that’s structured like Disneyland is likely to suffer from Disneyland-like sterility.
But this isn’t something that’s directly observable to ordinary users, for whom software (to say nothing of the processes and communities that behind it) is a black box. So if we iPad skeptics turn out to be right, there won’t be a “eureka” moment where ordinary users realize that the iPad sucks because of its centrally-planned app store. They’ll just notice that some other platform seems to have more cool stuff than the iPad, and gradually switch to the new platform.
This is exactly what happened in the late 1990s when people began abandoning AOL in favor of the open Internet. Very few of those users could have explained the technical or business model differences between AOL’s network and the Internet. All they knew was that for some reason most of the cool stuff was available on websites, not via AOL keywords.