The Kids Are All Right

Here’s a bit from Cory Doctorow’s piece today against the iPad (and the overall state of Apple product design):

Then there’s the device itself: clearly there’s a lot of thoughtfulness and smarts that went into the design. But there’s also a palpable contempt for the owner. 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. If you wanted your kid to grow up to be a confident, entrepreneurial, and firmly in the camp that believes that you should forever be rearranging the world to make it better, you bought her an Apple ][+.

Such is the march of progress. 40 years ago you could open the hood of your car and see and touch just about every component in there. And you had to, because many of those components required frequent maintenance. To properly own a car required, to some degree, that you understood how a car worked. Today, you open the hood of your car and you see a big sealed block and a basin for the windshield washer fluid. You can buy a new car, drive it for years, and never once open the hood yourself.

That’s the iPad.

Alex Payne wrote about this back in January:

The thing that bothers me most about the iPad is this: if I had an iPad rather than a real computer as a kid, I’d never be a programmer today.

As did Mark Pilgrim:

Once upon a time, Apple made the machines that made me who I am. I became who I am by tinkering. Now it seems they’re doing everything in their power to stop my kids from finding that sense of wonder. Apple has declared war on the tinkerers of the world.

They have a point. The iPad (and all other past and future iPhone OS devices) are not open in the way that the Apple II was and Macintosh is. But there have always been closed computing devices. My first computer? An Atari 2600, which my family got for Christmas when I was around six. I loved it. I devoted untold hours to it.

Yes, I also soon learned about personal computers — Apple II’s and Commodores and the Texas Instruments TI99 and even some from Atari. And you could type your own programs and they would run. And so of course my friends and I typed in our own programs and ran them. Joy!

But it never even occurred to us that in theory, we could also create programs for, say, the Atari 2600. We knew it was a “computer”, but it was a different type of computer. One where all of the software was made by faceless unknown professionals using magic beyond our ken. We had no idea how 2600 games were programmed or made or designed. And for all practical purposes, we had no chance whatsoever, none, to make our own.

We also had a sense that our programs, the ones we wrote in BASIC, were not “real” programs — the ones we bought (and, uh, sometimes didn’t) with commercial games and word processors were not written using BASIC. They were made — and distributed into retail channels — using, again, magic beyond our ken.

The iPad and iPhone are closed compared to personal computers, yes. But they are remarkably open compared to so many kinds of computing devices. Here’s an email I received today from Sam Kaplan:

I am 13 years old and a big fan of your site. I just made an app called iChalkboard. This is my second app, but my first iPad app. It allows you to simply sketch things out. Check it out: If you need any more info or a promo code, feel free to ask.

I hope you like it as much as I do.

He’s 13 years old and he has created (with the help of his friend, 14-year-old designer Louis Harboe) and is selling an iPad app in the same store where companies like EA, Google, and even Apple itself distribute iPad apps. His app is ready to go on the first day the product is available. Not a fake app. Not a junior app. A real honest-to-god iPad app. Imagine a 13-year-old in 1978 who could produce and sell his own Atari 2600 cartridges.

Somehow I don’t think young Mr. Kaplan sees the iPad as hurting his sense of wonder or entrepreneurism.

And, App Store aside — which, yes, requires access to a Mac and a $99/year developer account — what about the iPad and iPhone as web clients? There are no limits imposed by Apple on web apps targeting iPhone OS devices. When I learned to program in the 1980s with BASIC, the interface of our programs was monospaced (and on some machines, all-caps) text. Just text. If we had color it was limited to 16 shades.

If you could go back and show my 10-year-old self an iPad — millions of colors, video, photographs, gorgeous typography, a touchscreen interface, networking (wirelessly!) — and offered to let me write web apps for it in exchange for my agreeing never to touch an Apple II again, I’m pretty sure I know what the answer would be.

Something important and valuable is indeed being lost as Apple shifts to this model of computing. But it’s a trade-off, because something new that is important and valuable has been gained.

  1. Any other teenagers (or younger?) out there with iPad apps hitting the store, please let me know↩︎

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