April 24, 2014

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iPad: The Disneyland of Computers

Tech commentators have a love/hate relationship with Apple’s new iPad. Those who try it tend to like it, but many dislike its locked-down App Store which only allows Apple-approved apps. Some people even see the iPad as the dawn of a new relationship between people and computers.

To me, the iPad is Disneyland.

I like Disneyland. It’s clean, safe, and efficient. There are lots of entertaining things to do. Kids can drive cars; adults can wear goofy hats with impunity. There’s a parade every afternoon, and an underground medical center in case you get sick.

All of this is possible because of central planning. Every restaurant and store on Disneyland’s Main Street is approved in advance by Disney. Every employee is vetted by Disney. Disneyland wouldn’t be Disneyland without central planning.

I like to visit Disneyland, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

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.

The richness of our cultural opportunities, and the creative dynamism of our economy, are only possible because of a lack of central planning. Even the best central planning process couldn’t hope to keep up with the flow of new ideas.

The same is true of Apple’s app store bureaucracy: there’s no way it can keep up with the flow of new ideas — no way it can offer the scope and variety of apps that a less controlled environment can provide. And like the restaurants of Disneyland, the apps in Apple’s store will be blander because customers will blame the central planner for anything offensive they might say.

But there’s a bigger problem with the argument offered by central planning fanboys. To see what it is, we need to look more carefully at why Disneyland succeeded when so many centrally planned economies failed so dismally.

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.

So, iPad users, enjoy your trip to Disneyland. I understand why you’re going there, and I might go there one day myself. But don’t forget: there’s a big exciting world outside, and you don’t want to miss it.

Comments

  1. Perry E. Metzger says:

    …but I would go a bit further. Just as one can enjoy oneself at Disneyland but there isn’t a great deal of work there for those not employed by Disney, the iPad is enormously pretty and fun but not a real work tool. Even if part of Disneyland looks like “Main Street USA”, it isn’t — you can’t buy a house, get a job, open a store, or send your kids to school there. Similarly, the iPad is a pretty environment, but not one where you can live your life — you can’t even get to the file system.

    • Anonymous says:

      Duh, “the iPad is not a real work tool”. Nobody ever said it was. That’s what Macbooks, Macbook Pros, and Mac Pros are for. They are the defacto tools of the creative industries. This entire line of criticism is stupid.

      • Kokopure says:

        I’m a bit of an open-source nut, and even I wouldn’t classify Steve Jobs as “nobody”. Clearly -he- was thinking that the iPad would be a great work tool when he gave the thumbs up to feature iWork apps specifically designed for the iPad in his keynote speech presenting the darned thing.

        He was wrong, of course, but nevertheless, think before you make stupid criticisms towards criticisms that are actually -not- stupid.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Most people access the “big world outside” (as you aptly put it) through their web browsers. With the (significant) exception of Flash this is readily available in the iPad. I’d say it’s fair to argue that the iPad is primarily an open device in that the vast majority of available content is well presented and accessible. While there are clearly things that work better in an application, a large amount of the exciting innovation we’ve seen over the past decade has happened squarely within the web browser. To put this in the Disneyland framework, it’s like pointing out that you can watch HBO from inside your hotel in Disneyland, and that’s as close as most people get to Hollywood anyway.

    • Anonymous says:

      One could use the same argument to claim that the Nintendo Wii and DSi are open devices. In fact, they’re even more open, as they both have SD slots and the Wii even has USB ports. (In other words, I’m not buying this argument.)

  3. Bill Cheswick says:

    The iPhone/iPad system is an awfully big Disneyland: we are at well over 100,000 apps now, with virtually zero security problems. This is a pretty nice sandbox, and a pleasure to play in.

    The trouble with folk songs is that they are written by the people. Linux does not seem to be converging on a clean, safe endpoint, it just keeps crufting along.

    I like the freedom to choose advocated here, and certainly employ such systems (like FreeBSD) extensively.

  4. Anonymous says:

    It gets worst. Steve also wants to dictate which language developers can use:
    Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript as executed by the iPhone OS WebKit engine, and only code written in C, C++, and Objective-C may compile and directly link against the Documented APIs (e.g., Applications that link to Documented APIs through an intermediary translation or compatibility layer or tool are prohibited).

    BTW, should we call it disneyland-breaking now? :)

    @bill
    > Zero security problems
    http://www.engadget.com/2010/03/25/iphone-sms-database-hacked-in-20-seconds-news-at-11/
    http://www.forbes.com/2009/07/28/hackers-iphone-apple-technology-security-hackers.html
    http://gizmodo.com/5398755/another-iphone-developer-gets-busted-stealing-phone-numbers
    http://www.appletell.com/apple/comment/aurora-feint-removed-from-app-store/
    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/09/30/iphone_security/

    And remember, only the dumb ones get caught.

    • John Wallace says:

      That particular move, I believe, is smart. In order to stay ahead of Android, Apple needs to avoid least common denominator apps and being slowed down by metaplatforms (such as Flash and Java and .net). This move certainly hurts the write-once-run-everywhere crowd, but it doesn’t hurt the folks already writing for the platform (Unity and other game engines aside which I think Apple will accommodate).

      My biggest complaint about Apple is’t that they have rules, it’s that they have *unpublished* rules. Regulated economies have the best long-term return, but only if you know the regulations. That Apple is perceived as capricious and predatory certainly doesn’t help.

  5. JMonroe says:

    You can dislike the App Store for other reasons, but you have to recognize one big thing that it did for developers. The App Store has made it incredibly easy for developers to profit from what they create. I know many independent developers who have told me that they spend upwards of half their time maintaining online purchasing and distribution systems so that they can sell the software that they created. With the App Store, all we have to do is write the software, ship the binary off to Apple and in a matter of days, it is on sale worldwide. I don’t have to worry about credit card processing, refunds, exchange rates, regional sales taxes or anything else.

    Sure, we may have lost some freedom to tinker, but, I know of 13 year old kids that are selling games on the App Store that compete with titles from EA and the other big game companies and they are making tens of thousands of dollars a year.

    When developers are able to be easily compensated for their work and are able to sell software right along side large corporations, innovation isn’t exactly killed off.

    • felten says:

      The problem is not that there’s an App Store, but that it’s the only store that is allowed to exist.

      Apple could have set up the same App Store, but allowed third party app stores too. That would have given developers the benefits of the App Store, without restrictive central planning.

      • danite says:

        In fact, very little of what’s on sale at the app store is produced by Apple. It’s mostly third-party. Planning is what Apple does. It’s a moderated computer experience, and it always has been. That means that people committed to an open-source ideal won’t like Apple products. People who think that open source is a good idea in some areas, but that a moderated experience is acceptable in others can pick and choose, can prefer wikipedia to Britannica, but Apple to a consumer built Linux box.
        It’s odd that people who profess to love freedom and oppose the government by expert that social planning represents all come to the same argument in the end: I’m smarter than people who choose Apple products, and they should all be more like me.

        • felten says:

          My suggestion was to allow app stores run by third parties. Yes, the Apple app store sells lots of third party apps — but only the ones Apple approves. A third party store would give customers the option of relying on somebody else’s judgment (other than Apple) as to which apps are acceptable.

          • John Wallace says:

            Why should Apple go out of its way to support stores where developers write apps that don’t follow its Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) or used unpublished APIs or give leverage to its competitors? It’s not *illegal* to jailbreak your iPhone/iPad and stores do exist to sell jail broken software. But products on those stores don’t enjoy the huge market that Apple set up, and future versions of the iPhone OS may not work on your device.

            Apple’s rules spur innovation, but only innovation that furthers the Apple platform. But then why should they help Google, Microsoft, Oracle, and Adobe?

  6. Miche Doherty says:

    … but I don’t suppose that, if I did go, they’d take my phone away from me and search my bag for undesirable literature.

    Apple can, and does, control what apps are available for the iPad (jailbreaking aside). It can’t control the data on the device, so it can’t begin to control what I do with it. I can read any text I want to, watch any video I want to, look at any pictures I want to, talk to whoever I want to on whatever subject I want. And I can book a table at a non-bland, non-stodgy restaurant. Maybe the App Store is Disneyland. The iPad is not.

    • Steve says:

      Re: “I can watch any video I want to…”

      As long as it isn’t a Flash video or an app that is Flash or Adobe AIR based, you are correct. You can watch and nonflash video and play any nonflash game you would like.

      The problem with many Apple consumers is that they are so blinded by their love of Apple and dismay at anything not Apple that they don’t know how much they are truly missing out there.

  7. Richard Jones says:

    “What makes Disneyland different is that it is an island of central planning, embedded in a free society.”

    Many companies work like this too, centrally planned like mini-Soviet Unions.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thats an interesting analogy, however Im not sure I think its as accurate as it can be…

    I havent seen so many people given the oportunity to ‘open up a store’ ie create software.. so easily since the inception of the apple virtual disneyland…

    outside of this magical place, any of those ‘stores’ would close…

    so, thats neglecting the 1 great thing that these products that seem so ridged provide.

    the train that doesn’t run on time, but takes you to magical places… what is that, windows? that train takes you into a derailed horrific accident every ride…

    nice try, you had me at Disneyland but lost me at you can do all this with freedom, without it…

  9. Anonymous says:

    …and I like it. I don’t spend time rationalizing why I don’t like it. I just bought it, because that’s what I wanted. And you do too.

    • peter honeyman says:

      i am ignoring iPad politics while i try to figure out if it is useful enough to justify an extra pound and a half in my knapsack.

      if it turns out that the iPad frees me from having to haul around five and a half pounds of MBP, i will kneel and kiss SJ’s ring in gratitude.

  10. Anonymous says:

    It should be harped on that you are not allowed to change disneyland. Your opinion is only important as a customer and not as a creator. Your opinion on consumption is important, your opinion on creation is not.

    As well Apple is disneyland in the sense of censorship as well.

    My worry is that the acceptance of lack of freedom will gain ground and I will suffer for your consumer choices. I don’t care if you like the iPad or not, I don’t want your choices affecting my future and my freedom.

  11. Anonymous says:

    You think just anyone can open a restaurant without a problem?
    This just isn’t true.

    First you need start-up capital, which means you need a loan from a bank which vets you to make sure you have the business acumen to succeed.
    Then you need to get a permit to buy a building and another permit to set it up to run a restaurant and keep it up to code.
    Then you need some more permits to serve liquor, beer, or wine (and depending on the state you might need a separate permit for each.)
    And even once your restaurant is running you need to get certified by health inspectors to make sure your sanitary conditions are adequate and you’re legally liable if your working conditions are dangerous or unsafe.

    We have planning commissions, health codes, building codes, and zoning ordinances that dictate where and when you build things on top of the bank’s initial vetting process. We do this so that any old asshole can’t just open up a restaurant and poison people with rancid food, open up a factory and maim workers with unsafe machines, or open up a strip-joint next to a school and peddle smut and sleaze against the wishes of those kids’ parents.

    Kind of like what Apple does with the vetting process for the App Store.

    • Anonymous says:

      No. What Apple does is much more stringent, central control. If Apple only did the equivalent of the government hoops you have to jump through to open a restaurant, a) they’d vet the apps for harboring viruses and other malware and disallow those, and b) they’d allow adult, etc. apps but would label them as such and categorize them so you could avoid them if you didn’t like that sort of thing. I.e., safety regulation (no rancid apps) and zoning (no strip club next door to a school).

  12. Nominei says:

    I like the analogy. The iPad seems to be very well received, and is a great device for media consumption, but who are you kidding? 100,000 apps is just a number. iPad users, if you tell me you are using more than a handful of apps, I would have to call bull****. Only a fraction of those apps make any money, and every account i’ve heard of from developers is that Apple’s approval process is lengthy, even for updates to fix bugs, meaning the apps stay buggy longer before they get fixed.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m certain that most of the apps are good, and that some people are making a lot of money. But don’t flaunt the App Store like its a great feature. You mean I spend hundreds of dollars on a multimedia device, then get nickel-and-dimed for apps when I could have just gone to one of a million pre-existing webpages for free, if Apple had only bothered to include Flash? Apple crippled their web browsing to prop up their App Store sales. And the only winner is Apple, not the end user, and certainly not the bulk of the developers with apps in the App Store.

    The iPad is a great niche device, great for a lot of reasons, but I don’t buy into the fanatical fanboy hype. And I am eagerly awaiting the competing products to come out under the Android OS. A tablet that’s not locked down and also has a large app store if I want it? yes, please!

  13. Andrew says:

    Indeed, the Ipad is like Disneyland.

    But it’s a Disneyland in a universe where for 95% of the population, the alternative is a sewery rotting putrid hell.

    My parents, and millions of other people, will choose Disneyland.

    (The real thing that the ipad has shown us is that most of the computer industry is completely useless. Why do we care so much about the Ipad? Because no other hardware manufacturers make anything worth looking at!)

  14. Jesse Weinstein says:

    After reading Ed’s post, I had the thought that his analogy would work rather well for Linux distros, too. They are centrally planned, blander than what one can get by installing random software from the net, but able to innovate because they can incorporate external, third-party projects.

    However, I was rather turned off by the nasty and hysterical tone of so many of the comments here (on both sides of the pro/anti IPad mess), that I nearly didn’t bother to post. I suppose this reflects a thin skin or something, but it seemed worth mentioning.

  15. Anonymous says:

    One thing that fascinates me about Apple is the wonderful glowing facade they put on what is some of the most blatant examples of monopolistic practices in our marketplace. My friends at Microsoft like to mention that while MS certainly has engaged in monopolistic behavior (along with a wide-variety of illegal and anti-compete activity) it has none of the actual controls of Apple under Steve Jobs.

    This last move, to require developers to have to create entirely new versions of apps for use on other platforms, and only to use specific code and apps, is somewhat breathtaking in it’s goals, which are pretty easy to see as bullying any and all who wish to do business with them or their customers.

    They do have the right to operate their entire business as a “boutique” technology company, however this latest move could very well end them in court, and facing anti-trust suits from folks like Adobe. And.. if the outcome is Adobe deciding that CS5 would be their last ever Mac product, it really wouldn’t surprise me. The Mac is an important customer base, but the last time I attended one of their events, it was made clear that Windows customers are the majority. So, they could keep alive with or without the Mac platform. As a Mac user it would be a huge loss, and while there are other folks who would step into the void in a heartbeat, I could imagine it happening, as it did with Premier not that many years ago.

    Apple may have shot themselves in the foot on this. I doubt that any developers will really stop doing business with Apple. They might have to create a unique team to create for Apple, and another team for the rest of the world, and resource the same graphics, designs, workflows, etc.. but Apple is too strong a lock on folks passions.. at the moment.

    However, the rest of the world isn’t that Apple crazed, and fact that millions of Blackberry users are still users, despite the iPhone, is proof that Apple isn’t the only game in town. And if Adobe teams up with Google, and others, then Apple might be in for a problem. Would you spend money to create a site minus flash for the immediate future? Just for the iPhone and iPad market?

    The birth of the anti-trust laws and anti-monopolistic advocacy was brought to life in part by Eastman Kodak, which made the film, cameras, processed the film and paper, then owned the drugstores and photo stores that only sold Kodak film and cameras, and which often crowded out smaller competitors, and taking over the entire market in towns across the America. They were essentially forced to divest those holdings by threat of those Anti-Trust laws, and folks willing to enforce them. In the early 90s they sold off their last remaining processing interests.

    And now.. now this once giant of the US and world business community has lost most of it’s market share, has sold off it’s chemical divisions, is failing at the printer business, and so much more. So, while Apple may have the arrogance to act this way, it normally doesn’t last long. Look at IBM, Quark, MS, Wang, Data General, and so many others to see how fickle the market and consumers can be when faced with arrogance.

    • Tom says:

      Windows is indeed the majority of Adobe’s customer base. But it’s a 60% majority, not a 95% majority as it is with other software manufacturers.

      Back in the day, Adobe did think seriously about abandoning the Mac platform. But that was then. This is now.

      You’re right that Apple will fall some day. Every company does at one point or another. However, it’s going to fall for some totally random reason that neither you nor I can foresee. That’s how these things happen. Consumer backlash? Not while there are still fanboys.

  16. B. Franklin says:

    Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

  17. LambrettaMike says:

    Apple Inc. is about producing useable platforms, not entirely open source crap. Everyone has choice, so if people do not buy into the Apple Inc. way of producing the useable platform and excellent content eco-system, then go to some second-tier alternative and enjoy your life.

    The Apple Inc. metrics will, as always, speak for themselves. 1 million iPads by the financials update on 20th April 2010, 8-10 million iPads full calendar year 2010.

    • felten says:

      I’m not positing open source as the only alternative to Apple’s centrally planned walled garden app store model. Most commercial platforms, including the Mac, allow anyone to develop and distribute an app.

      And seriously: 1 million units, or 10 million units makes you a runaway success? That’s still far below the number of standard netbooks sold, and a drop in the bucket compared to computer sales. More people than that go to Disneyland each year.

      • LambrettaMike says:

        For all the pundits that reckoned Apple Inc. were creating a device that did not have a market, I would say that 10 million units in 2010, with probably double that in 2011 would be a pretty good showing; it will for sure eat into the crappy netbook market. In terms of the no. of computers sold, remember that most of the profit from computer sales (including netbooks, laptops & desktops) goes to Apple Inc, because the rest are simply cutting each others throat on margins.

  18. Antonymous says:

    There I said it…

  19. Bradley says:

    I just got back from DisneyLand and I really liked it. I ate several meals there and they were excellent. Disney even has one of the best steak houses I have ever eaten in.
    I took an iPad with me to Disneyland. I got over 14 hours of battery life. It was a wonderful tool.
    Thank you Steve Jobs for helping to create and allowing to go to market such a wonderful device.

  20. neo says:

    1. Who quantifies that this newly open experience, where anyone can open a restaurant on Main Street, and anyone can start their own App Store is “better” ?

    Can it be measured by a sudden rush of new customers seeking the better experience ? Existing customers spending more ? More frequent visits ? What are the metrics ? And if the metrics are positive, why do you think the Walt Disney or the Apple guys haven’t done this already ? A poor understanding of their customers ? Improper A-B testing ? Fear of making an additional profit ?

    2. Even once you grant that your “better” argument is largely subjective, here’s why you’re wrong: Disneyland is an experience, not unlike experiencing a work of art, like a movie. Not all works of art need to be democratically/meritocratically generated like the Linux kernel. Suggesting that Disneyland include contributions by others is like suggesting that Picasso should have allowed anyone to paint on his canvas..

    -Neo

  21. Anonymous says:

    I don’t care if iPad is better or worst or whatever you want…
    My only concern is that it remains an “Island”, just to use the author’s metaphor.
    I say that because IMHO fair competition is always good.
    I dislike Apple’s politics and, because of that, I don’t buy any apple product even if they work good; but I hope that in the future people will be able to CHOOSE the platform that better satisfies their needs.

    Just my 2 cents.

    PS.
    Sorry for my bad english.

  22. Anonymous says:

    I don’t care if iPad is better or worst or whatever you want…
    My only concern is that it remains an “Island”, just to use the author’s metaphor.
    I say that because IMHO fair competition is always good.
    I dislike Apple’s politics and, because of that, I don’t buy any apple product even if they work good; but I hope that in the future people will be able to CHOOSE the platform that better satisfies their needs.

    Just my 2 cents.

    PS.
    Sorry for my bad english.

  23. Mac convert says:

    i love os x but i won’t go near an iPhone or an iPad. the app store is an evil dictatorship.

  24. Michael Kaufman says:

    As an iPad fan, let me start out by saying that I think your Disneyland analogy is spot on. Like Disneyland, the iPad is a closed environment designed for a specific user group to use a at specific time that is tightly governed by by a central authority.

    I love my iPad, and I love Disneyland. Well, Disneyworld anyhow, I haven’t been to Disneyland in 25 years.

    And much in the same way that I love to visit Disneyworld but I wouldn’t want to live there, I wouldn’t use my iPad as my only computer.

    And, while Disneyworld has great rides, and great things to see, and yummy junk food, its not so good for museums, art galleries, fine dining, etc.

    And while my iPad is a great media player, eReader, web browser, Wikipedia access device, game machine, its not so good as complicated spreadsheets, word processing, database development, etc.

    So, the questions is, do I need to go out into the big world when I want great rides, and great things to see, yummy junk food, media player, eReader, web browser, Wikipedia access device and a game machine?

    Is my experience doing these things lessened by the fact that in the big wide world I can eat better? Is my entertainment experience not as entertaining because I have to do my work on a more powerful computer?

    All but the most fantatic fans of Disneyworld don’t want to live there, and All but the most fanatic fans of the iPad don’t look at it as there only computing device. Even Steve Job isnt selling or even hoping that the iPad will be the be all and end all of computing.

    Its a toy. A great and powerful computing toy. A wonderful wonderful toy. The fact that it isn’t my only computer doesn’t bother me. The idea that I am trapped in some secluded cut off place is just silly. Like Disneyworld, I just visit there for entertainment. And, so far, like Disneyworld, I show no signs of getting tired of it.

  25. Agile Cyborg says:

    After countless readings on this issue I view this piece as matching my own perspective on the recent Apple itool controversy.

    I am not interested in paying money to a company that hinders my ability to freely access any technology, application, or resource as I wish.

    BUT, many do appreciate the Disneyland effect to the point where they actually embrace existing within the boundaries of a certain artificiality that is becoming the Apple aura.

    The dynamic of fierce resistance to the Apple juggernaut is important and good. Ultimately, though, Apple WILL prevail. Its millions of nurtured and carefully-tended users will see to this. Apple understands the psyche of its base and it will serve this beast exactly what it desires. This what all successful companies do.

    Developers for the Apple platform- adapt or die. It IS this simple. Apple knows what is best for its children.