December 5, 2020

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.