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Poisoned Apple?

Simon tries to get interested in the iPad, and wonders if it’s about time freedom took a hold on the mainstream eReader market…

Simon Brew is a technology writer and editor, working across the Linux, Windows and Mac OS platforms.

I’m in two minds about Apple’s latest attempt to redefine the wheel of the technology market. And given that much has been written about its iPad product launch, I’m reluctant to delve into the mechanics of the product itself that deeply, for fear of sending you into a coma stimulated by repetition of the same details over and over again. Personally, I feel I’ve heard so much about that it’s as if I designed the thing. I’ve little urge to buy one, which never helps, but would be willing to pretend otherwise if you really needed me to. Fortunately for me, I don’t think you do.

But there’s one thing I do admire about what Apple has done, and is continually able to do. For alone among technology firms, it’s capable of generating the kind of hyperbole that’s usually reserved for X-Factor contestants, divorcing vacuous celebrities and the goings on of generally talentless people who parade their wares on the telly.
The announcement of the iPad not only sent the internet into some kind of meltdown, it also became a talking point that found its way into the newspapers, everyday conversations and pretty much every media outlet with a spare minute in their schedules (and plenty who didn’t). That’s accepting that the consensus, as always, seems to be wait for version two before jumping aboard. But Apple has nonetheless put a tablet computer very much on people’s shopping lists for this year. Even if they didn’t realise until a month ago that they actually wanted one.

This, inevitably, provides an open source opportunity to a market that’s embracing DRM and closed-sourced technology as fast as it can. Especially when you come to eReader functionality and such like, where the key feature for many publishers of the iPad, the Kindle and whatever products Microsoft’s own tablet-centric operating system ends up on
will be restricting what you can and can’t do with the virtual publications that you buy fairly and squarely. That’s why many in the industry in particular are keen to back what Apple has to offer, and why so many have greeted positively a new outlet through which to sell closed source content.

As such, Linux is going to struggle to get noticed here, not for the first time. Faced with an informal cartel of media providers, there’s going to be little appetite from the top of the market to bring Linux-ready tablets to market, and even though the operating system itself is ideal – especially given that power consumption and a low footprint would be high up the agenda for a tablet OS – the thinking of the market simply isn’t broad enough. This is why we end up with systems that allow Amazon, for instance, to retrospectively delete copies of a book from a Kindle because of someone else’s licensing problems.

But it all got me thinking, The odd mistake that people make with Linux, which looks set to be made again here, is the assumption that absolutely everything to do with it should be free. Which is clearly nonsense, at least in the financial sense. Should I, for instance, be expected to get all my legal MP3 downloads for free because I want to run them on VLC installed on a Linux system? No, of course not. Instead, the problem is with the restrictive technology often contained within MP3 files, not the handing over of money for them. And it’s the same with the likes of eBooks: that assumption that Linux users want everything for free, rather than for it to be free. That’s actually a crucial distinction, and a subtle but crucial difference that’s likely to be lost in the iPad stampede.

As the market floods towards the iPad therefore, my only hope is that someone uses the new attention that tablets, and eReading functions, are getting, and tries to make people aware that – not for the first time – the status quo as it stands doesn’t have to be like it is. An unwinnable fight? Possibly. But it’s still, surely, a fight that needs to be fought.

This article originally appeared in issue 85 of Linux User & Developer.
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