Tablets: anti-consumer and anti-innovation

Tablet computers (and smart phones) are bad. They are bad for consumers and kill innovation. They move power from the owner of the device to its manufacturer, and denying the use of a cheap base for research and development, the very base that made the tablets possible in the first place, and, if PCs follow suit, innovation will become much harder. They deny consumers choice, are sometimes impossible to update (a security nightmare) and are inflexible.

Immediate problems for consumers

The root problem is the denial of consumer choice. I am writing on a laptop, which, being PC hardware, is extremely flexible. On it, I can install any version of Microsoft Windows I have install media for, any one of a number of Linux distributions (from fully fledged ones like Ubuntu, to Google’s cut-down Chromium/Chrome OS), Android, FreeBSD and its relatives, and a number of lesser known operating systems. I can also do the same with an Apple Mac (Macs are just PCs made by Apple). I cannot do this with tablets and smart phones.

The most immediate problem is the security problems this causes. Many Android devices cannot be upgraded, because users are dependent on the device vendor for updates, so security issues are not fixed. Any Android device quickly becomes highly vulnerable to viruses and hackers.

Apple is much better in this respect, but is deeply anti-consumer in its strategy of customer control and lock-in. Software must be bought through Apple’s App Store, and software that competes with Apple is banned. Apple takes a large  cut on the price books music and films bough through any app (or the app is banned). hardware works only with Apple devices (Android devices often work with PC hardware, from mice to mobile wireless dongles) to raise the price of switching to a competitor, media bought from Apple will only run on Apple devices (or, currently, on PCs with Apple software).

The long term threat to innovation

The leading tablet and phones operating systems are Android and Apple’s mobile version of MacOS. Android is based on Linux, and MacOS on a combination of FreeBSD and Mach. Linux, FreeBSD and Mach are open source operating systems that exist because PCs provided a cheap hardware platform that they could run on, giving them a much larger users base than would have been possible on specialist hardware and greatly bringing down the cost of development.

There also have been, and are, many experimental, research, and early stage operating systems that benefit from running on cheap hardware. These may come to obvious prominence by becoming widely adopted, or they may provide a a base to develop variants, or they may just pioneer ideas that later become more widely adopted.

Tablets could have made a great, cheap research platform. They could have provided scope for children to experiment with cheap devices and become the next generation of innovative software developers — as the Raspberry Pi allows but with a far more widely available mobile platform. Start-up companies could have modified and reprogrammed tablets to create completely new devices without needing the huge amounts of capital to create a custom device from scratch.  Learning, experimentation, and innovation are being pushed onto specialist hardware, and will therefore become less affordable.

The greatest danger is that PCs will become more like tablets. Microsoft has taken the first step towards this be requiring that all PCs that can run Window 8 supprt “secure boot” — i.e. they will only run operating systems that the manufacturer permits. At the moment, secure boot can be turned off — but for how long? If PCs become as closed as tablets, then what cheap platform will innovators have to work on? What platform will consumers have that disruptive innovation can run on?