Photography: Yutaka Tsutano
With more than half a million iPads sold within a week of launch and European rollout delayed to cope with the unexpectedly high demand, it seems as though the question of whether there’s space for a third type of product between the laptop and the mobile phone has been answered. People do want tablets in general, and they want iPads in particular. But the new gizmo hasn’t gone down so well with everyone. While the fanboys have been lining up to get their fingers on Apple’s screens, others have been looking to hit the new device out of the park. Some have done it literally but others have been pulling the shutters down on Apple’s tablet, banning people from using it. A number of bloggers and tech types too have called for a consumer boycott.
The most comprehensive ban on the iPad took place in Israel, a country known for its hi-tech industry where Intel’s chips are designed and ICQ pioneered instant messaging. After initially allowing people to bring the device into the country, advising them only to declare it at customs in order to pay VAT, Israel’s Ministry of Communications then confused everyone by announcing that iPads were completely prohibited and would be confiscated at entry. A number of devices, dutifully declared by their owners at Ben Gurion airport, have been seized and placed in storage until the owners remove them from the country. The customs authorities are even demanding storage fees of around $12 per day.
Asked to justify the ban, the only national lockout imposed anywhere, the ministry noted that the iPad wireless system is made according to US standard, not the European standard followed in Israel, and could cause disruption. It’s an issue that doesn’t seem to bother any European countries nor does it worry the ministry when people enter the country with US-purchased laptops, iPhones and other devices.
The iPad Ban is “Nonsense”
The explanation has caused much head-scratching around the world, with Time Magazine quoting one Israeli technology lawyer describing the decision as “nonsense.”
“I went to the FCC website and saw that the iPad already correlates with the European standards,” said Aviv Eilon.
In fact, the bizarre nature of the ban has led to a number of conspiracy theories, with some commentators noting that iDigital, Israel’s sole official importer of Apple products, is owned by the son of President Shimon Peres. Others have speculated that the iPad’s wifi system could conflict with military communications.
The ministry though has received some support in the form of smaller bans elsewhere. The Wall Street Journal has reported that both Princeton University and George Washington University have banned the iPad following concerns about security. Other colleges, including Cornell, have reported problems with connectivity and bandwidth overload.
It’s likely though that all of these bans will be repealed at some point. Once the iPad is launched in Europe, Israel’s Ministry of Communications will no longer have a reason to keep it out of the country — and if it tried, the people made angry would then include the President’s son as well as its Apple fans. Colleges are likely to strengthen their security and wireless systems to cope with the demand and some are even offering students a choice between Macbooks and iPads on registration.
More worrying though are the calls from bloggers for a consumer boycott of Apple — worrying not because people might actually heed the call but because the calls aren’t entirely wrong.
Open Source Versus Closed Stores
The complaints are two-fold.
The first problem is Apple’s new SDK Agreement which bans “applications that link to Documented APIs through an intermediary translation or compatibility layer.” In effect, it pulls the drawbridge down on Adobe’s CS5, a workaround that would have allowed developers to put Flash on Apple’s products. It’s a surprise move that led even Techcrunch to accuse Apple of “playing dirty.”
It’s certainly a nasty case of bullying by one company against another. But it’s also a sign of Apple’s desire to exact complete control not just over the way its products are made but what users can put on them after they’ve bought them. That’s the second reason that people have called on consumers to boycott the iPad. By forcing developers to submit all applications to its app store for approval, and by preventing any other way of adding programs to the device, Apple prevents creativity and blocks competition. As Fionn Dempsey, creator of Facebook’s Boycott iPad group states:
“They want use [sic] to throw away our netbooks for a device on which we cannot install whatever software we like, cannot watch video on the internet for free, cannot use flash applications and games, but must instead, in all cases, pay for the alternative service that Apple offers.”
Buying an iPad (or an iPhone or an iPod Touch for that matter) is a bit like buying a Dell PC then discovering you can only add software from Dell’s own software store.
Apple’s response, of course, would be to point to its long lines of raving fans, the iPads piling up in Israeli customs warehouses and an app store with hundreds of thousands of programs that no one can ever find. It would say that when people buy its products, they want a very cool piece of hardware but they also want the confidence that comes from knowing that every program has been checked for bugs and problems. Those consumers are really not interested in how the apps reach their devices as long as there’s plenty of them (and despite the restrictions, there are far more apps available for the iPhone than programs for Google’s Android operating system which is open source.)
And most pointedly of all, they’d note that Fionn Dempsey’s group has only 90 members promising a boycott in contrast to its half a million iPad buyers.
There may be good reasons then for boycotting the iPad (although the Israeli government seems to struggling to find one) but when it comes to Apple, those who want to make a point about the importance of open source and free access are always going to be outnumbered by consumers who just want to point their fingers at the screen.