iPad and information appliances, a free software angle

Apple iPad is certainly interesting. It seeks to challenge the concept of PCs by providing something that is at the same time more personal, and a lot easier to use. The personal computer of the future.

Gone is difficult file organization - instead, applications use their own purpose-build content repositories. Instead of seeking software from many places, all of it is easily available in an App Store, all quality-controlled by Apple. And same thing with content - forget about bookshelves and stacks of CDs, instead simply dowloading all you need from iTunes.

This sort of user experience obviously comes with a cost. Important computing concepts like multitasking are not supported. The iTunes/App Store experience means that Apple is in the position to ensure no software or content competing with its or its business partners' business model gets on the device. And most of the content you buy for the device is DRM'd, meaning that you're only renting it for the time allowed by content owners, never buying.

Even with the limitations concerned I can see myself buying an iPad. It would serve as a very nice device for web surfing from the couch and as an e-reader on business trips. I can also see myself running demos and presentations from it instead of a laptop.

Even with the limitations concerned, it is likely that the iPad will happen, and will blaze the trail towards a new way of personal computing. Stephen Fry says it well:

Like the first iPhone, iPad 1.0 is a John the Baptist preparing the way of what is to come, but also like iPhone 1.0 (and Jokanaan himself too come to that) iPad 1.0 is still fantastic enough in its own right to be classed as a stunningly exciting object, one that you will want NOW and one that will not be matched this year by any company. In the future, when it has two cameras for fully featured video conferencing, GPS and who knows what else built in (1080 HD TV reception and recording and nano projection, for example) and when the iBook store has recorded its 100 millionth download and the thousands of accessories and peripherals that have invented uses for iPad that we simply can’t now imagine – when that has happened it will all have seemed so natural and inevitable that today’s nay-sayers and sceptics will have forgotten that they ever doubted its potential.

The success of iPad will mean more than just a completely new level of App Store economy. Other companies will certainly seek to emulate the model, coming up with their own post-WIMP devices and their own content and software ecosystems. This all will be a challenge for the free software movement.

The world of free software is still very much stuck in what computing was in the 90s. We think of desktop computers, we do not integrate with the web. And we do not get the transformation that is happening with personal computers. Taught by smartphones and cloud applications, users are moving from desktops through simple netbooks towards information appliances.

With information appliances you need a seamless user interface. You need an ecosystem where content comes alongside the software to utilize it. You need to move past the old WIMP metaphors and the idea of separation between data stored in a a file system and the software manipulating it.

So far the first convincing attempt towards this direction I've seen in the free software world is KDE's Social Desktop initiative. It allows users to connect with each other straight through the desktop, and it allows discovery of new applications and content to download and use straight in the applications. We also use it with Maemo's new App Downloader.

Threatened by the cloud from one end, and closed-ecosystem appliances from the other, it will be interesting to see how we react. Will we rise to the challenge and start providing new user experiences? Will we build a free cloud? Will we integrate with initiatives like Project Gutenberg and Creative Commons to provide the content integration? Will the open web be our safe haven?

Definitely interesting times to be a software developer.

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