June 24, 2024

iPad to Test Zittrain's "Future of the Internet" Thesis

Jonathan Zittrain famously argued in his book “The Future of the Internet, and How to Stop It” that we were headed for a future in which general purpose computers would be replaced by locked-down computing appliances.

Apple’s new iPad will put Zittrain’s thesis to the test. The iPad, as announced, has aspects of both an appliance and a general purpose computer. (Zittrain would say “generative”, but I’ll stick with the standard computer science term “general purpose”.) Will the appliance side kill the general-purpose side?

The iPad is an appliance in the sense that it runs applications from Apple’s App Store. The App Store is a “walled garden” containing only apps that have been approved by Apple. Apple has systematically refused to approve certain types of apps, and it has subjected apps to a vetting process that can be slow and mystifying. To the extent that Apple refuses broad categories of apps, this is an appliance approach to computing.

On the other hand, the iPad has a web browser. Modern browsers have become general-purpose platforms for delivering a broad class of applications. Pair a Bluetooth keyboard to your iPad, fire up the browser, and you have a fancy netbook — a general-purpose device that can run applications of any type.

For the iPad to become a Zittrain-type appliance, two things must happen. First, Apple must remain picky about which apps are available in the App Store. Second, Apple must limit the device’s browser so that it lacks the features that make today’s browsers viable application platforms. Will Apple be able to limit their product in this way, despite competition from other, more general-purpose tablets? I doubt it.

But even this — even an appliance-style iPad — would not be enough to prove Zittrain’s thesis. Zittrain argued not just that appliances would exist, but that they would replace general purpose computers. Amazon’s kindle is an appliance, but it doesn’t prove Zittrain’s thesis because nobody is ditching their laptop in favor of a Kindle. Instead, the Kindle is an extra device which is used for its purpose, while the general-purpose device is used for everything else. If the iPad ends up like the Kindle — a complement to the laptop or netbook, rather than a replacement for it — this will not prove Zittrain’s thesis.

It seems unlikely, then, that the iPad, even if it succeeds, will provide strong support for Zittrain’s thesis. General-purpose computers are so useful that we’re not likely to abandon them.

UPDATE: A few minutes after posting this, I saw that Zittrain had published his own take on this question.


  1. Users are afraid to add applications because 90% of the apps you find on the internet by searching (rather than going through reliable channels) contain viruses and spyware.

    That, beyond all other things, has been the biggest challenge to software freedom. This is the reason why the app store model has been so successful. Software is easy to download and install, and it won’t crap all over your computer.

  2. iPad is an abomination. ’nuff said.

  3. It has been a while since I read Zittrain’s book, but I thought his claim or worry there was mostly that increasing the amount of computing done on special purpose appliances would reduce the exposure of young people coming along to learning opportunities and reduce opportunities to develop improved systems by tinkering. Both of which are present with the iPad, but I think Zittrain’s worries are a bit overstated, mainly since I don’t see the iPad as I have heard it described actually replacing many computers.

  4. Seth Finkelstein says

    “Apple’s new iPad will put Zittrain’s thesis to the test.”

    Well, that’s harder than it looks. Zittrain’s book is a complex and subtle argument, and also, I suspect, made even more complicated by a mismatch between what he might have wanted to say, and what could be acceptably said by someone in his position (every time I consider writing a long analysis of it, I remind myself that it’s targeted at an audience which would not care what I had to say).

    Zittrain’s thesis isn’t about the existence of fixed vs. general purpose devices – it’s more about the balance between them.

  5. Richard Bennett says

    Will somebody please wake me up when Apple stops selling Macs?

  6. Thomas Claburn says

    In his explanation of why Apple refused to approve a Bush countdown clock app called Freedom Time, CEO Steve Jobs wrote, “Even though my personal political leanings are democratic, I think this app will be offensive to roughly half our customers. What’s the point?”

    iPhone/iPad Apps will not be approved if overtly political, documented in more detail by developer Jason Grigsby.

    Books on the iPad are, presumably, not subject to political censorship. So using the new iBookstore, you will be able to buy books by Noam Chomsky, Rush Limbaugh and anyone else on the political spectrum.

    Wrap that book in an App? Not allowed.

    What’s the point of treating one form of content differently from another?

  7. Luther Blissett says

    I’m not so bothered about iPad (and iPhone) not supporting Flash. There are better standards emerging to do similar things (ie HTML5), and Apple’s deliberately excluding Flash support from what will likely be a popular device (as the iPhone has become) is likely to push more web developers to eschew Flash in favor of HTML5. In the same way that Apple’s adoption of USB led to it becoming industry standard, and its giving up on floppy disks led to them disappearing from PCs too, I think this will be the first step in Flash going away, and being replaced by HTML5. Which, for those who would prefer open standards to closed ones, is a good thing.

  8. Michael Weiksner says

    In my opinion, it is a near certainty that Apple will remain picky about what apps appear. So, I am willing to bet on your first criteria being met.

    What about the second criteria? I think that the intentional lack of flash support is a significant. Is this an oversight, or an intentional foray into limited general purpose computing? Sadly, I suspect the latter.

  9. Whilst I agree with your assertion that the iPad on its own is unlikely to prove Zittrain’s thesis, I think that the restriction that the only non-approved applications that it can run are web applications will prove more damaging to user empowerment than this analysis indicates. (Generativity, to me, is only a proxy for the real prize, which is user empowerment.)

    In particular, a future in which the majority of applications that users interact with are web apps or walled-garden-approved apps still allows anyone to create new applications (by building a web app) and thus promotes generativity in a sense. However, the loss of control regarding where data is stored, who maintains its security etc. that comes with using web apps could do a lot to lessen user empowerment.

    It’s not so much a question of controlling “what software you’re allowed to interact with”, which is pretty hard to do in an age of web applications, so much as removing the ability from the user to control where their data is stored and who has control over it.

    Google’s Chrome OS is a perfect example that hints towards this loss of control for end users.