Apple’s announcement of the iPod has revealed a striking fault line within the tech community. In a Guardian article, Bobble Johnson quoted traditionalists such as the Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle describing the iPad as “chiling.” Peter Kirn warns that the iPad “embodies the exact opposite of all the reasons I’ve invested so much time in computing for the last 25 years.” These critics all mourn the replacement of the open, endlessly mutable personal computer with a system that does what its makers thinks it should do, no more, no less.
I am a tinkerer. On my wall, I have an letter-size plastic sheet labelled “The Apple Card.” It cost $3.98 in 1980 ad it contains such important information that looking at memory location C030 [peek(-16336)] would tweak the Apple ][ speaker and that hires color 1 was green. Thirty years ago, I used this, a lot and even longer ago, I used a similar card for the IBM System/360. Back then, if you wanted to do anything much on a computer, you needed to know this stuff and I sometimes miss it.
But it is time to move on. One fear that has been expressed in the wake of the iPad announcement is that our computers will follow the iPhone and iPad to locked-down land. Fir the computers that most people use, that would probably be a good thing.
We have to recognize is that although personal computers have become much easier to use over the three decades of their existence, they have never evolved to the point when the great majority of people who use them feel truly comfortable with them. In a modern automobile massive complexity is completely hidden from the operator. With today’s computers, you are still expected to deal with cryptic error messages, the installation of device drivers, and knowing what to do when your Web browser tells you it needs this or that plug-in. Worse, stuff, mostly software, breaks all the time and good luck to you if you don’t have a friend or relation who can fix it.
Worse, the in recent years the evolution of computer usability has slowed and perhaps stopped. If Windows 7 seems like a big improvement over vista, that’s largely because Vista was a step backward from Windows XP. In the most recent version of Mac OS X, Snow Leopard, nearly all of the important changes are under the hood. And desktop Linux continues to struggle for any sort of acceptability among non-programmers. We haven’t really gone anywhere in a decade.
Yes, the iPad is a closed, locked down device controlled by Apple. But, if as some traditionalists fear, that will stifle creativity, how do we explain the explosion of creative energy that had produced undreamed of iPhone apps and services in the past year and a half? Yes, all of the creative work was done on relatively open Macs, not the iPhones themselves, but so what? It will always be the case that only a tiny minority will do creative work–by which I mean software development, not using a computer to write, or paint, or compose music–and they will have their open tools.
For the rest of us, it maybe time for computers to become a lot more like cars. My Acura is a locked down device. I can change a tire if a get a flat and I can check the fluid levels under the hood. And that’s just fine with me. As long as Honda doesn’t try to tell me where I can drive my car, the fact that I can’t tinker with it is of no consequence. Similarly, if an iPad lets me do the things I want to do and visit the Web sites I want to visit, I don’t care whether it uses Flash and h.264 or HTML 5 and Theora to display video.
If the result is that 90% or more of the people who actually use computers can new what they need to do or want to do better and with less anxiety, that will be a huge gain.