Archive for April, 2010

Apple iPad

The Apple iPad is out today. (In the United States.)

The device has generated many, many words even before being properly leaked, let alone announced, and more still after the January 27, 2010 announcement.

I’m not here to tell you the iPad is missing features, or underpowered, or overpriced. Features are relative to requirements, power is relative to needs, and price is relative to everything. It might be underpowered and overpriced for some, but others it will be just right. Poking fun at lack of USB ports or multitasking or Flash is cheap, easy, and popular, but it’s totally been done a thousand times over. Personally, I am intrigued by the slate form factor — just not the Apple implementation.

I’m here to tell you the Apple iPad makes me uneasy. Very uneasy.

Much of the more insightful commentary following the iPad announcement focused on the philosophy underlying the device, and not without reason.

I don’t have that much of a problem with iPad the movie watching slate or iPad the game console or iPad the ebook reader: iPad, the appliance.

I do have a large problem with iPad, the future of computing.

Apple seems very intent on expanding the deployment of iPhone OS. It’s spread from a smartphone, to a handheld device to a media slate. This from a company now calling itself a mobile device company. Of course, they should have an interest in expanding iPhone OS’s popularity: it’s likely cheaper and easier to develop and cheaper and easier to run, hardware-wise. I’m all for leaner, user-friendlier software. It probably doesn’t hurt Apple gets 30% of all the (official) software sales.

You will have no problem finding people to tell you the iPad is the future.

Many have commented on the tinkering, exploration, and play angles of the iPad Question; of those, Alex Payne’s and Mark Pilgrim’s posts caught my particular attention.

(Alex’s verdict: disturbing. Mark’s: a real loss.)

The general idea is that by encouraging playing, tinkering, and messing with things, computers of yore allowed their users to develop creativity, analytical thinking, and curiosity. Appropriately, for both the writers, the computers in question were made by Apple.

I have similar experiences — not on Apple computers, there weren’t a lot of those in Poland in mid-to-late 90s — but the personal stories are not the point here.

One of the responses to those arguments, by Faruk Ateş, charged:

When these men became programmers, they didn’t do so because tinkering was “so much fun”; they did it because there was no other way. [emphasis original]

He and many others manage to impressively miss the point.

Children don’t tinker because they want to become programmers, because they want to learn to program or learn anything else. Children tinker because it’s fun. There is no ultimate goal. They do not, at least initially, kick a football around because they want to be on Manchester United’s first team. They do not play in the kitchen because they want to become world-famous chefs, nor do they play with LEGO because they want to become mechanical or civil engineers. They play and tinker because they are curious and that is what children do.

Luckily, they do develop very important skills while tinkering, trying things out, pushing the boundaries, breaking things occasionally. This is a side effect — a very important and happy side effect, but a side effect nevertheless.

The iPad is a LEGO set that can only be assembled into what’s drawn on the box.

The iPad is a microwave. You can’t realistically do whatever you please with a microwave, and most people won’t expect to. But the future of food delivered from microwaves — quick, easy, user-friendly, one-button — is a bleak future. No one will become a world-famous chef by playing with making food in the microwave when they’re 12. The stove presents much more opportunity to mess up and spend hours cleaning up the aftermath, or even burn down the place. It also presents an opportunity for expression and exploration that just cannot be realized in the limited nature of the microwave oven.

It looks like Apple would really, really like it if more people would get rid of their stoves and only use microwaves.

The “it’s either secure, user friendly, easy to learn, or it’s tinkerable” line of thinking commonly used against these arguments is a false dichotomy. Mac OS X comes with a command-line terminal and a variety of other ways to mess with and, yes, break your system. Compared against the iPhone OS, the primary reason OS X might be considered more difficult is not because it’s easier to break; it’s because it’s more overwhelming with its functionality.

As Cory Doctorow wrote in a recent post that was otherwise less than pointed:

Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

This isn’t about us not understanding a paradigm shift. This isn’t about us not understanding how the new world moves. We understand it — and we are very afraid it will lack supremely important features of the old world.

Here’s to tinkering.