and now we have an ipad 01.28.2010, 11:00 AM
posted by dan visel
The iPad has arrived, to no one's surprise: as soon as you use an iPhone, you start wondering what a computer-sized version of the same would be like. (Those interested in how past predictions look now might look at this post by Ben from five years ago.) The iPad is an attractive device and at $500, it seems likely to take off. It seems entirely possible that a tablet could replace laptops and desktops for many computers, to say nothing of Kindles and Nooks. My MacBook Pro suddenly feels rickety. Hardware-wise, it feels like the iPad might finally be Alan Kay's Dynabook.
And yet: standing on the verge of a potential transformation in how people use computers, I think it's worth stepping back for a second to think about where we are. I suggest that now might be a useful time to re-read Neal Stephenson's manifesto, "In the Beginning Was the Command Line". This is, it needs to be said, a dated piece of writing, as Stephenson has admitted; this is the perpetual curse of writing about technology. Stephenson was writing in 1999, when Microsoft's monopoly over the computer seemed to be without limit; Apple was then in an interregnum, and Google and Amazon were promising web players in a sea of many other promising web players. "In the Beginning Was the Command Line," however, is still worth reading because of his understanding of how we use computers. The promise of the open source movement that Stephenson described was that it would give users complete control over their computers: using Linux, you weren't tied into how corporations thought your computer could be used but were free to change it as you desired. And there's a deeper question that Stephenson gets at: the problem of how we understand our tools, if at all. We can theoretically understand how an open system works; but a closed system is opaque. Something magic is happening under the hood.
Things have changed since then: the Linux desktop never really took off in the way that seemed possible in 1999. Corporations – Apple and Google – showed that they could use open source in a tremendously profitable way. What made me think about this essay yesterday, however, was the iPad: Apple has created a computer that's entirely locked down. The only applications that will run on the iPad are those that have been approved by Apple. And this is one of the first computers where the user will be entirely unable to access the file system. I understand why this is possible from a design standpoint: file systems are arcane things, and most people don't understand them or want to understand them. But this means that Apple has a complete lock on how media gets into your iPad: you're tied into an Apple-approved mechanism. The user of the iPad, like the user of the iPhone, is directly tied into the Apple economy: your credit card on file with Apple not only lets you buy apps and media, but it will also allow you to buy internet connectivity.
It's simple – it's fantastically simple, and it will probably work. But I can't help but think of how Stephenson metaphorically equates the closed system of Windows 95 to a car with the hood welded shut: you can't get inside it. Apple's managed this on a scale that late 90s Microsoft could only dream of. I wonder as well what this means for our understanding of technology: maybe technology's become something we let others understand for us.
Posted by dan visel on January 28, 2010 11:00 AM
bowerbird on January 28, 2010 8:41 PM:
i wrote windows95 programs,
mac programs of all stripes,
plus i've written iphone apps,
and i'll write ipad apps too...
and i think you are wrong
when you say apple has
"a complete lock on how
media gets into" the ipad.
(i'd point to a link, but
it's all speculation now.)
moreover, it's a browser,
so unless the government
closes the web (partially or
fully), we do have openness.
including our own web apps.
you might (or might not)
have a good point, _if_
you have the truth in tow.
if not, however, you're just
another person crying "wolf",
desensitizing the citizenry...
Brandon Lee on January 28, 2010 10:39 PM:
Let's not forget the web browser and how "applications" increasingly includes webpages and services. Gmail is an example of an application that runs entirely in the browser and completely replaces most people's need for a desktop client. Google Docs isn't too shabby. I know, I know. I agree with you, but it's not completely closed down in the way a thin client isn't completely powerless.
I wrote an article on the iPad earlier today, it may interest you. http://blog.sangsara.net/2010/01/causes-of-ipad-disappointment.html
dan visel on January 29, 2010 11:27 AM:
A better summation of the same ideas that I was trying to get across can be found here. I think something has changed here: but I do think we need to be doing a lot of thinking about how we relate to computers, because that is going to be changing, probably much faster than we imagine.
bowerbird on January 31, 2010 9:15 AM:
um, it's rather clear that the ipad is an internet appliance,
which is essentially what stevenf is saying in his piece...
but dan, you said this:
> But I can't help but think of how Stephenson
> metaphorically equates the closed system of Windows 95
> to a car with the hood welded shut: you can't get inside it.
you're clearly trying to signal this is a negative development.
but the fact is that most people don't want to open the hood,
and, if they could, won't have the slightest notion what to do.
on the other hand, the people who _do_ know what to do
(i.e., programmers) can still program for the ipad just fine.
(you need other tools to do it, but so does a car mechanic.)
i can't program my toaster, but it works just fine, thank you.
there might come a time and place where you need to issue
this warning. save your credibility for that time and place...
eric on February 1, 2010 4:19 PM:
"you're clearly trying to signal this is a negative development.
but the fact is that most people don't want to open the hood,
and, if they could, won't have the slightest notion what to do."
But that is no grounds for welding it shut. Many are willing to learn.
At risk of slaughtering the analogy, there is a difference between the mechanic and the owner. A mechanic can open a hood and know what to do to fix or improve the vehicle. The owner might not know a damn thing, but he should be given the opportunity to learn or explore if he's feeling adventurous. How else are we able to train new mechanics if we keep "locking the toy box".
With all analogies aside, a car moves you and a toaster heats bread. The internet and computers are quickly becoming second brains, storing all the information we need, connecting worlds to other worlds and allowing you to create work that would be devastating to lose. It's a shame many people don't take an interest in understanding computers.
My issue with the more recent wave of Apple products is that they only let you swim in their pool and they don't let you dive into the deep end without a permission slip. Maybe Apple is too worried that they will lose a grip on their demographic if they open up, but that's just speculation. My favorite part of networked technologies is what other can do with it and how far they can go with the tech, but that's probably why I won't buy it. Too simple, no real depth.
bowerbird on February 2, 2010 3:46 PM:
> But that is no grounds for welding it shut.
> Many are willing to learn.
then you don't buy that particular machine. you buy another.
just like if you need a back seat, you don't buy a smart car...
but just because _you_ need a back seat, or want one, or might,
doesn't mean that the smart car maker should fold its tent up...
and just because one car in a lineup is made without a back seat
doesn't mean we need to get weird about "the lack of back seats".
besides, the hood ain't "welded shut". it's got a flimsy lock on it,
and there are very clear directions on the web how to bypass it,
with a free programming tool with which to create apps for it...
and yes, you need a _real_ computer to run that free tool. so?
and the ipad will also run web apps just fine.
it's a toaster, folks. and no, you can't learn how to be a
car mechanic from a toaster, but nobody ever did anyway.
> It's a shame many people don't
> take an interest in understanding computers.
i agree. but the problem is that some people -- the ones
that i call "technocrats" -- have made computing so complex
that it has become impossible for most people to understand.
the technocrats have done this because they _like_ complexity,
and because a complex infrastructure ensures their livelihood.
they are the new priesthood, pulling a fast one on the public...
> Too simple, no real depth.
"it just works."
eric on February 4, 2010 10:45 PM:
"it just works."
Yea, that's my problem with it. As a designer, I believe that "it just works" doesn't work for today's increasingly knowledgeable mainstream. It lacks that hidden potential that open-source or customizable (by my terms. I do not mean a robust options menu) products have. The only thing that limits a product is the hardware, but Apple does a good job at limiting the software to an "Apple-economy". People have ideas, but not the means, and when you are dealing with a progressive company like Apple, then leaving those that are interested out of the loop is a missed opportunity.
Be careful using analogies. The world is not as one-to-one as you might think. The fact that you broke my analogy into further complexity proves that you missed the over-arching point of the statement (welded vs locked). There is an effort into understanding the iPad, whether its locked, welded, sealed, fused, whatever. Without the right tools or foundation, its going to be difficult learn from it. Just because that it's not the point of the iPad to accomplish this freedom doesn't mean I should just spring for a different product. It's not wrong to ask a company for something. If we didn't then they wouldn't know what we really want. Many people will just take what they are given and do with it what they can, and that is fine, but I refuse that prescriptive mindset for one that continues to question motive. ("then you don't buy that particular machine. you buy another." -bowerbird)
"My favorite part of networked technologies is what other can do with it and how far they can go with the tech, but that's probably why I won't buy it." -me (last post)
Don't worry, I won't buy it.
"it's a toaster, folks. and no, you can't learn how to be a car mechanic from a toaster, but nobody ever did anyway." -not sure why this is said at all...
Sorry if I appear defensive, I like this discussion. Simply put, I agree with the original statement,
"I wonder as well what this means for our understanding of technology: maybe technology's become something we let others understand for us." -dan visel
bowerbird on February 5, 2010 4:07 PM:
> its going to be difficult learn from it.
i'm sorry for your loss...
> Just because that it's not the point of the iPad
> to accomplish this freedom doesn't mean
> I should just spring for a different product.
actually, the fact that it doesn't do what you'd like it to do
probably means you _should_ spring for something else...
> It's not wrong to ask a company for something.
and it's not wrong for them to say "no" either...
> If we didn't then they wouldn't know what we really want.
obviously you've never heard steve jobs talk about why apple
doesn't use focus groups to guide its product development... :+)
> Many people will just take what they are given
> and do with it what they can, and that is fine
it's noble of you to bless such people, but i'm not sure they
were asking for such a blessing. you also ignore the fact that
this machine is _exactly_ what _those_people_ would ask for,
and that they aren't "just taking what they were given", but are
actually thrilled they have been given exactly what they wanted.
and i think it's wonderful that someone in the computer industry
is _finally_ giving the public what they've wanted for a long time,
namely a nice simple computer web appliance that "just works".
you mean we can leave all that complexity behind? what a relief!
> Don't worry, I won't buy it.
i wasn't "worried". i wasn't worried at all. not in the slightest.
> Sorry if I appear defensive
i made no such claim. besides, you can be however you want.
eric on February 6, 2010 2:25 AM:
Blessing? No, that's not what I am doing. "Taken what they are given" does not imply sacrifice; maybe it is what they want "and that is fine" (as in "I am not contesting those people, ignore them"). I'm sure the iPad will be a major hit.
I think you are responding to each sentence I write rather than the point I am trying to convey. In the broadest sense, there are levels of simplicity, the first (the one I believe iPad has achieved) is a level of efficiency, style and access that are fairly shallow and forthcoming. It is certainly accessible to a "non-enthusiast" and mainstream population. The second simplicity is a system that helps to untangle the complexity that the computer inherently has. The beauty of this second type is that it can leave itself open without deterring others for fear of its complexity. One of the most elegant examples of this is the Processing language (http://processing.org/).
A more analogical example is Malcolm Gladwell's works, Freakonomics, or Neil deGrasse Tyson's works; they act as simple and accessible gateways into the much more complex worlds of sociology, economics, and physics respectively.
This does not apply to a cellphone, car, mp3 player or anything like that, but rather things that start to breach the personal computer boundaries such as the iPad (which is considered a "tablet computer" rather than a browser). By stating this about the iPad, I do not praise what you call the "technocrats" because they do the opposite of Apple and make things too complex.
What worries me about the move that Apple has made with this new device is that while it is opposite of what the "technocrats" do, it has the same effect: it cuts people out of the loop, everyone, even those who did not want to be in to begin with.
What worries me more is that this move is becoming a trend beyond the iPad and beyond Apple (as pioneers, others follow suit). The simplicity of it is a curtain that hides the complexity rather than eliminating it or allowing us to navigate it. The iPad just works the best in this discussion because it is the most blaring example of it. We are, as a whole, becoming more sophisticated with tech, but at the same time we are pushed away from it.
I deal with the computer problems of others everyday and I can say that on average, those with a Macbook are the most inept and like I said much earlier, a computer is more than an accessory like the iPhone, it has become something we invest ourselves in deeply and personally; something that is getting harder to live without.
bowerbird on February 8, 2010 3:39 PM:
> I think you are responding to each sentence I write
> rather than the point I am trying to convey.
perhaps you should make the two work together better.
better yet, design the machine that will allow people to
use it as an internet appliance (which is what the ipad is)
if that's what they want to do, but yet also allow people to
use it as the-kind-of-machine-that-you-want if they prefer.
better yet, design it as software _for_ an internet appliance...
juz_hk on February 18, 2010 8:22 PM:
It's true linux hasn't made it onto the desktop, but it's made inroads everywhere else: mobile devices: android say; servers; netbooks; embedded devices; tivo, etc etc. So indeed, no desktop, but a lot of other places..
Bill Dolton on March 19, 2010 4:34 PM:
Getting beyond the specifics of the first generation iPad or even how locked down the design is or isn't or should or shouldn't be, I'm interested in its implication on books -- specifically on textbooks for K-12 education. I just wrote a blog, "Tyrannosaurus Text," about the need to hasten the extinction of the textbook in education. Ideal or not, the iPad is likely to nudge us a little closer just as affordable laptops and mobile devices have already. Every device that challenges traditional publishing moves us forward.