iPhone-style App Store Limitation Makes iPad A Tough Sell

The iPad has been a red-hot topic since Apple unveiled it last week; the tablet's price structure, included hardware, and iPhone-derived UI are all topics that have been debated extensively by tech pundits and enthusiasts across all forms of media. These are salient points of conversation, to be sure, but the question of whether or not potential iPad customers will accept the App Store as the sole source of iPad software, has gone largely unaddressed. The iPhone App Store has been an undeniable success, but consumers may not tolerate the same level of control over their computers as they have over their cell phones.

To date, Apple has been able to win massive market share and appoint itself official gatekeeper of the iPhone for several reasons. Not only is the phone-as-application-platform meme exceedingly new, consumers are used to thinking about cell phones as closed devices. For most of the past 12-13 years, when you bought a phone, you bought whatever applications your carrier included with it. Even after the advent of smartphones, carriers emphasized the features and software a device shipped with, as opposed to the ease and flexibility with which users could select their own apps, from a variety of options. Apple has done quite a bit to drive home this new idea, and the company deserves credit for it, but the level of control the company imposes over the iPhone is absolutely unprecedented in the computing world.  And let's face it, the iPad is competing in the same space as netbooks and other tablet PCs that exist today and will be coming to market in the future.

Your sole source for iPad software...

Imagine that when Microsoft launched Windows 7, it had instituted a new software quality assurance program that required developers who wanted to sell or even give away a Win 7-compatible program to first submit it to Microsoft for approval and verification. Said process would occur opaquely and over an indefinite period of time, according to inconsistently applied rules and standards. Microsoft, meanwhile, reserved the right to kill any app for any reason at any point during or after the initial review, including for such a dubious reason as "duplicating functionality." Any application Microsoft developed (or chose to include with Windows 7) would naturally be exempt from this rule, even if an approved third-party app had established a dominant presence in the market. 

It's preposterous to imagine Microsoft or any other company successfully launching such a scheme around a 'traditional' computer and it's by no means certain that Apple's potential customers are jumping up and down for the privilege, either. True, Macs have always been more of a closed system and software environment versus their PC counterparts, but the level of control Apple plans to leverage over its iPad customers is more stringent than anything a Mac user has ever had to deal with. Apple may ship Safari with Macbooks, for example, but Opera and Firefox are both available. Unless the Cupertino-based manufacturer revises its policies, those are browser options the iPad user base won't have.

There are certain iPod features, including its touch-oriented OS, that will work well on the iPad. It's also going to occupy its own unique niche until/unless Microsoft overhauls Windows 7 to include a true touch-centric GUI. Jobs, meanwhile, has proven extremely successful at predicting what features consumers want and what they're willing to pay for them. The iPad, however, presents a slightly different problem.

The issue here isn't features or pricing, it's freedom. Consumers may not be very interested in paying netbook/notebook-equivalent prices for a comparable device that, in some cases, is locked simply because Jobs declares it so. Why no multitasking on the iPad? Why no Firefox? Modifying your iPhone or iPad to run software other individuals would freely give away shouldn't be a violation of the device's warranty or terms of service—but it is. With the iPad, Apple has an opportunity to introduce a new device in a new space without asking users to give up freedoms they've become accustomed to. How the company treats this question could have a significant and lasting impact on the iPad's overall success.  Is Apple so blinded by their own success that they don't see this? Or is it that Apple is just such a control freak that they don't really care?