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 AteÅŸ, 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.

18 Responses to “Apple iPad”

  1. speg says:

    I can’t imagine a better device to tinker with than a slick 10 inch touch-screen. The possibilities are endless and as we see devs get some real time with the hardware, I think we will start to see some really impressive things.

  2. @speg: The possibilities are most certainly not endless. Apple has clearly defined ends on what you can do. Yes, a slick 10 inch tablet is a neat hardware platform. Unfortunately, apple has taken away your ability to tinker. If paying $99 is the first step, I think it isn’t tinkering at all.

    I think the philosophy of the Maker’s Manifesto embodies this for hardware, and the open source movement for software. If you can’t open it, take it apart, and reassemble it as you want, you don’t own it.

    Sure, maybe you don’t want to take apart your device. But somebody does. And by supporting products that are as restrictive as this, you’re hurting them. They want good products as much as you do, but if they are limited to poorer “tinkerer-only” devices, then you’ve hurt them. I’d rather have an iPhone than lots of other Android handsets, but Android is just that much more open, so I made my choice.

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by qviri: Everybody else is doing it, so why can’t I? An Apple iPad rant:

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jarek Piórkowski, kicauan, Thomas Buck, Hacker News, hkrnws and others. hkrnws said: "The iPad is a LEGO set that can only be assembled into what's drawn on the box" […]

  5. Gary says:

    I grew up messing about on computers since I was 9 or 10, what I wouldn’t have given to get my hands on an iPad back then. All the dev tools are FREE (as in beer) and of very high quality, you do need a Mac to develop native apps, but for those who don’t have or don’t want a Mac, just build with open web standards on any platform you have access to. The $99 iPhone developer fee is only if you want to actually publish native apps globally via the online App Store.

  6. Milky Joe says:

    Paying $99 is not the first step to tinkering: paying $499 is. Would you be happier if Apple simply charged $599 and gave you the ability to publish to the App Store “for free”?

    Paying $99 isn’t even the second step to tinkering: downloading the iPad SDK is. That’s free (as in beer) to anyone who registers. Even a tinkering child can handle that.

    In fact, strictly speaking, anyone with a Mac, child or otherwise, can tinker with an iPad without putting any money down at all by skipping step 1 and using the SDK’s simulator. I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, I wanted to tinker with an Amiga, but I certainly couldn’t afford it and my parents wouldn’t buy me one, and there was no god damn Amiga simulator, that’s for sure. So I was shit out of luck. Today any kid with access to a Mac can tinker with an iPad, even if it’s only a virtual one. And this is worse how?

    Now, if you’re concerned about kids (or adults) not being able to move to the next step after tinkering with programming, which is *publishing* their programs, then that’s a whole different argument entirely. In that case, yes, you need to pay $99 to do that. That’s not tinkering, that’s developing. And for $99 you’re getting access to a slick online publishing system with free hosting, free bandwidth, a free rating system, and a payment processing system that gives you 70% of the gross. All of this is ready to go out of the box, and it scales to millions of potential customers. I don’t know about you, but I certainly didn’t have access to that kind of distribution platform when *I* was programming as a child, so assuming you’re some enterprising kid who’s developed an amazing application for the iPad, that sounds like a pretty good deal to me, compared to putting up my *own* web site, paying for hosting and bandwidth, making sure it can scale, and setting up a payment processing system. As part of the deal, my publisher (Apple) gets final say over whether to publish my app. Bummer, but that’s got *nothing* to do with tinkering.

    So basically, your “no tinkering” argument is bullshit. Look, dude, as a developer, I’m not happy about Apple’s restrictions on their App Store, either, and I would be much happier if Apple gave us a way to distribute apps without using the App Store and had chosen GNU/Linux as the core of the iPhone OS and released all of the source code for their SDKs and let me use whatever language I like and kumbaya. But all of you who are arguing that an iPad is inaccessible or somehow unappealing to kids or other tinkerers because Apple calls the shots on what gets published on the App Store are full of shit. You’re projecting your own resentment and prejudices, and you’re conflating two completely separate issues.

  7. Very good post. I like where you’re going with this. But, I see the “tinkers” and the “normal users” in two very separate camps. I myself, am a tinkerer, and anyone my camp just needs to get the SDK and pay the $99 dev fee and you can write, compile and install to your device whatever you come up with. Removing the ability to tinker under the hood to average user does make the device more secure from any would be tinkerers who really are not properly equipped. Let’s take this analogy to cars- at one time cars required a lot more tinkering- at one they required a manual crank to start it up. As the features and technology in cars increased, the know how to “tinker” without doing damage increased until it really reached a point where cars are better left to specialists and more specifically specialists on a given brand car. Back in software world- writing apps that are fool proof and require “less” entry to use (while dually providing less to tinker with) does actually improve things for your average user. My mom after 16 yrs of having a computer still gets confused by all the options and functions in MS Office, and occasionally calls me to ask how to attach a photo to an email. I’m really curious to get her an iPad and see if it makes things easier for her.

  8. carmen says:

    every science museum in 1980s had a C64 with touchscreen running some random app. nothing new here

  9. Robin says:

    Pointless complaint, this article. Did you come up with a blurting like this when the smartphones hit the stores, too? Or when other companies began doing tablets before Apple did? I guess you didn’t. The tablets, just like the iPad, were never aimed at being devices for computing – they are consoles for linking to computer-driven societal functions, interests and hobbies. Put your Apple-bashing in the closet already – it’s getting old and moot – or at least start whining on all the other manufacturers as well.

  10. marcus says:

    big whoop. your cell phone is also a lego kit that assembles only into what’s on the box and nothing more, but you’re not writing about that. this is tabloid sensationalism.

  11. matt says:

    milky joe – I may be mistaken, but I think you do need to pay the $99 to deploy to your own device.

  12. umut yolcusu says:

    I see your point and agree with you. Apple tries to form a closed platform, both hardwarewise and softwarewise.

    But still there are some good news: There are alternatives and they will increase in the months to come.
    for the time being just take a look at WePad (from Germany)

    No advertising is intended but WePad’s a cool piece of Tablet PC

    In the future, iPad might remain only as a marginal player in the Tablet PC market because of its arrogant restrictions, feature cutting, pricing policies, etc.

  13. JamesP says:

    See that? That dot way up there in the sky? Thats the point, friends. You, in your rabid fanboyism, completely missed it. You may defend yourselves with the claim that you disagree, but the truth of the matter is that you missed it. Congratulations.

  14. DB says:

    You’ve gotta be kidding. This drama isnt based in any sort of reality. if you don’t like the platform, go somewhere else to do your noble Tinkering. There’s a planet of computing to choose from, like oh, say poor maligned-by-Apple Flash, whose publisher makes you buy the dev environment for $600. or MS, for whatever tablet they’ll be dreaming up and promising you for the next five years. Or, you know, Linux, which has almost settled on a decent GUI.

    Grow up. The very complaints you are all registering, and the ones in the article, are the same ones people have raised against Apple since the first Mac. It’s too simple. It discourages innovation. Its a closed ecosystem. Look up your fcuking history for five minutes and you’ll see I’m correct.

    You’re Luddites. Apple has been making the same idea for 30 years, easy computing for everyone. If you fear it, or you think it’s stealing your freedom fries, go elsewhere, but get it in your head: the damned thing isn’t made for your self indulgent tinkering. It’s made for you as a programmer to create something useful for others. And the platforms business model will evolve on it’s own. It’s not fascism. It’s one company.

    If you think I’m not going deep enough, you’re right. I can’t probe all that deep into your paranoid imaginations.

  15. JamesP says:

    Someone needs to review history, in my mind. A quick reading of what a Luddite was and what they stood for will indicate that anyone protesting this device is not, in fact, a Luddite.

    Since you, who most certainly is too busy to look for yourself by your invocation of revisionist histories, won’t look yourself, I’ll do it for you.

    Luddites were people who were against progress for progresses sake when said progress was undeniably harmful to them, their families and their way of life. If you examine who’s mills they damaged, any who kept the same staff and upped the output were left alone, only those who used automation to reduce the workforce, and thus unilaterally decide to harm hundreds for the gain of one, were harmed. Now you know.

  16. Michael D says:

    “if you don’t like the platform, go somewhere else to do your noble Tinkering.” … “Apple has been making the same idea for 30 years, easy computing for everyone.”

    Did you miss the part where the tinkering is a side-effect? This is why it’s important to consider what the ubiquitous “easy computing” affords users. If (and only if) the prevalent easy computing (or whichever technology) affords tinkering, then society will reap the benefits. If tinkering is difficult, most will do something else, like watch YouTube videos on their iPad.

  17. Josh says:

    It’s not real tinkering unless the product is “do not tinker” and you tinker with it. Taking apart a desktop computer used to be (at least I think so) some moderate challenge when no one expected it to be taken apart. After manufacturers develop cases with clear sides and easy-to-remove hinges or latches or whatever, then it’s not really tinkering anymore. Similar example is video cards and cpus: Back in the day it was tinkering, now it’s just some software utility that you can drag some slider bar and run some stress test to see if it overheats.

    You say an iPad is like a microwave. I agree. You say a microwave can’t be tinkered with, I disagree. You can take it apart and do all sorts of weird shit with the electronics inside. What you do to a kid is, “here’s an iPad, change the battery”. Now that’s tinkering.

  18. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I am not able to respond to each individually, but I do have two general notes:

    Price of entry for tinkering is an Apple computer. I don’t care about App Store and sales and distribution; that is development, not tinkering.

    The device can in no way bootstrap on its own; for ‘native’ applications, you need an x86 computer; for web applications, you need a web server elsewhere. This will become especially pronounced once the iPhone OS products shed their USB attachment for setup and syncing and can really become the only computer.

    I have high hopes for the web, but I would prefer if it didn’t have to become the last frontier.

    I’m locking the comments due to trackback and comment spam. Please email me with any concerns.