How free will the tablet be?

Next week Apple has a press event scheduled  and the rumor mill predicts that they’ll be launching a new product, most likely the long-fabled tablet computer. There is already plenty of speculation over what the new device might be like, but the aspect that I’m anxious to hear about is how free it is; free as in speech.

Apple has always designed closed ecosystems where you must use both their hardware and operating systems together. Without courageous and unsupported workarounds you can only run Mac OS X on your MacBook, and only use iTunes to manage the music on your iPod. On the iPhone they upped the ante, successfully controlling not only the underlying operating system and desktop component but positioning the App Store as a gatekeeper for every third party app. The iPhone is an amazing device that has changed the way I learn, communicate, and travel, but it is not very free.

In a book I’m currently reading, The Future of the Internet, and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain provides a perspective on generatively in the history of computing and the internet. He is referring to the quality of a system that allows for unexpected uses to develop in an unimpeded manner, and highlights numerous examples of today’s products and services trending in the other direction. It leaves me feeling conflicted — I know firsthand as a designer that when you control all aspects of an ecosystem you have a better opportunity to provide a good user experience. Similar to the issues of privacy vs. tailored interactions I find myself acknowledging that this cohesive experience comes at a price.

Many products today go beyond restricting generatively and are actually tethered to their makers, able to phone home to tattle on their owners or install updates that restrict or remove features at the manufacturer’s whim. Examples include Tivo or the Amazon Kindle, which infuriated owners when books they had previously purchased were removed from their devices remotely.

Next week, I will be very interested to see how Apple continues their trend towards increased control. Of course I’m curious to see how big the screen is, and what kinds of gestures it will support, but I’ll be looking deeper too at what kind of relationship they are facilitating between the device and its owner. Will we be able to use it how we want? Will they support new and unexpected user innovation? How free will it be?