Would you buy a locked down laptop?
Let’s talk hypotheticals for a moment.
Can you imagine a scenario where Apple releases a fully-fledged laptop locked down like the iPhone or iPad? A fully fledged computer on which the only way to install software is through Apple’s built in App Store?
To borrow an overused phrase, it’s more likely than you think.
Would you buy it? Would other people buy it?
Package management can be awesome
I’ve written about package management before. I believe that locking down a package manager such that the user can’t change the available software channels is unethical and flies in the face of years of innovation. We’ve always treated computers as though they were owned by their users, and I see the popularization of devices like the iPhone and iPad as a disturbing precedent. Might Apple be emboldened to try locking down full computers the same way?
We live in an age in which the technology is powerful enough to implement such a thing. Apple is certainly capable of running the servers necessary for supplying its users with all their software, and it would certainly be lucrative, given how successful the iPhone’s app store is and how much 3rd party pay software exists for Macs right now (which Apple would then be able to take a cut of the profits on). There is thus a clear financial incentive for Apple to set up such a system, and for developers to continue to target it (and submit to their harsh developer restrictions).
And let’s face it: such a system would be amazing for users who don’t care. They would enjoy Apple’s rigorous testing process for all their software, and thus enjoy machines that almost never become bogged down by slow or unstable apps. They’d have an easy way of finding and installing all the software they could ever want–even simpler than what they currently have on Macs, and that’s saying something–along with Apple’s approval of all of it, which carries all the quality control that their name has become synonymous with.
I can imagine other possible models. Maybe they’d offer people “simple” or “advanced” options when purchasing computers, the former being cheaper and locked down for the “I really don’t know how to use computers” crowd. Such a thing doesn’t seem like them though, given how well they’ve avoided fragmenting their product ecosystem. Or perhaps they’d simply release their own blessed way to jailbreak the system if a user cares enough.
Right, jailbreaking! Can’t you just jailbreak it?
A cursory glance at the history of the iPhone would make one all but certain that if Apple released such a system without offering a way to unlock it, their users would find a way (as they will undoubtedly with the iPad).
I find this scenario similarly unpleasant, for two reasons. One is that if your enjoyment of a machine depends on an unauthorized hack, you are entirely dependent on those hackers to keep it jailbroken the next time Apple pushes out a system update that invariably locks you down again–the ease of which is never a certainty. It’s a cat-and-mouse game that some users appear more than happy to play, but in the long run it definitely doesn’t seem worth the effort to me.
The other is that you’re ignoring the device’s biggest selling point. If a device is locked down, it’s locked down as a genuine means of quality control, which Apple has shown itself to be superb at. To my mind, jailbreaking an Apple device invalidates everything good about it–Apple’s assurance that you’re getting the best you can get.
This argument may seem self-contradictory–suddenly a device being locked down is a good thing? It’s important to remember that the reasons for locking down a device in the first place are, in order:
- Making a cut off of lucrative third-party software sales.
- Making sure that 3rd-party software enriches the platform rather than makes it look bad.
- Making the system easy to use.
- Making the system stable, secure and fast.
For most users, a locked down system is protection from systems they don’t care about knowing how to use, and from software that might harm their systems. To users who care about customization, it’s a heavy-handed restriction on something they want to use that just gets in their way. Users in the former category genuinely benefit from a locked down system, and users in the latter category don’t.
So how likely is it?
I’ve always felt that Apple’s primary market is the former category, and that’s why I think this scenario is so likely. It worries me, because I’ve always clung to the idealistic notion that someone who uses a computer has a responsibility to know how to make changes to how it functions. An Apple user might counter that all Apple’s lockdowns do is simplify the method for those changes so more people have access to them. I would counter that such a thing is worthless if more fine-grained customizability is lost in the process.
But then, I suppose that’s why I’m an Ubuntu user. I have the tools I need to change where my software is coming from, and I use them. I just wish more people noticed or cared.