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Apple's iPad: A beginning, not end, to innovation

Some decry the iPad as an innovation-killer, but this neglects its role in inspiring others to innovate.

Cory Doctorow believes the iPad signals an end to innovation. It doesn't. Apple's iPad actually points to a beginning of innovation in personal computing.

Where Doctorow and I likely agree, however, is that such innovation won't come within the confines of Apple's beautiful iPad device, but rather at its margins.

Apple iPad
Apple said it sold more than 300,000 iPads on Saturday, the first day it was available. Josh P. Miller/CNET

Doctorow writes:

I believe--really believe--in the stirring words of the Maker Manifesto: if you can't open it, you don't own it. Screws not glue. The original Apple ][+ came with schematics for the circuit boards, and birthed a generation of hardware and software hackers who upended the world for the better.

All of this is true, but it needlessly limits the scope of innovation that the iPad can enable.

It also overestimates the value of unfettered hackability. As recently documented for open-source software, for example, sometimes modifying source code is the absolute wrong thing to do. Just because you can doesn't mean you should.

This is why Apple and other otherwise proprietary vendors enable modification and innovation outside the core of their systems. Developers are free to make tweaks through add-ons and bolt-in applications, rather than fiddling with the core. So, even though Apple's iPad is very closed, it's also open.

It may not be open enough, but this is where Doctorow's argument doesn't anticipate Apple's ability to inspire the competition, even as it locks in its customers.

Apple gets a lot of credit for its innovations, but very little of what it creates is "innovative" in the sense of "creating a new product category or device de novo," as Fortune highlights. The iPad, iPhone, and iPod all improved upon existing market competition.

Is this innovation? Of course it is. Simplifying hitherto complex technology is innovative, and is arguably more useful than simply coming up with new (but horrendously complex) technology.

But Apple isn't alone in being able to do this. Microsoft made personal computing easy, and reaped the benefits. Google has done the same thing with the Web.

Indeed, Google, perhaps more than any other company, threatens to up-end Apple's newfound dominance by matching its simplicity and elegance step-for-step with Android and other initiatives.

Sure, give Apple credit for innovating first. But that doesn't mean that Apple will innovate last, as Doctorow implies.

The market won't let it. Apple doesn't have a lock on good ideas and, as Google's Android has demonstrated, the market doesn't want to be locked into Apple, having learned its lesson with Microsoft. The future belongs to the company that can deliver on Tim O'Reilly's "Internet Operating System," which feels more like Google than Apple to me.

In the coming months, we'll see a slew of iPad competitors come to market, even as other alternatives (like Linux-based Netbooks) continue to grow (albeit at a slower rate, according to new IDC data). These are Apple's children, even if Apple would rather they went away.

The winner will be the one that opens up the customer experience to the whole Web, not merely Apple's products or its application ecosystem. But we still should not fail to give Apple credit for inspiring such innovation, even if it ultimately won't be the company to deliver on it.