Mark Pilgrim’s excellent exposition on the “tinkerer’s sunset” (an idea Alex Payne put forth in his iPad piece I linked earlier) got me thinking about the nature of tinkerers, and whether the iPad really represents a sunset for them. The optimist in me thinks it couldn’t even if it tried.
First, know that I fundamentally agree with Alex and Mark: the closed nature of the iPad turns me off, and I wouldn’t give one to my kid if I were encouraging her to learn about how computers work. But, Apple’s rightly betting that most people don’t want to know about the inner workings of a computer,* and regardless of the fact that Apple runs the App Store with an iron fist, dedicated hackers have still figured out ways to run whatever software they want on the iPhone/iPod touch. They’ll do the same with the iPad, and this led me to muse that the open versus closed debate, which has geeks like me in a tizzy, may be 99% a philosophical discussion. Because while we’re all ranting about how closed the iPad will be, the jailbreak community is planning competitions to see who can crack it first. The sun isn’t setting on tinkerers; their desire to crack things open intensifies when faced with something that’s closed by design. The challenge is part of the appeal.
I wrote Mark an email about all this earlier and realized I should have just posted it publicly. Here’s a quick copy and paste job, with a few edits for readability.
Doesn’t tinkering, by definition, connote cracking something open, voiding the warranty, and twiddling regardless of consequences? Taking the risk that you brick it with no recourse? When you jailbreak your iPhone, is there a *practical* difference between that experience and rooting Android, or flashing your Linksys with open source firmware, or installing XBMC on your Xbox? Is the legality the difference? Which of those activities is legal and which is illegal? (I’m not even sure, which is pretty ignorant on my part, since I’ve done all of those. I just didn’t care.) Is there really a tinkerer’s sunset if unlocking the iWhatever in some manner remains an option? If it’s not an option, won’t the act of tinkering involve MAKING it one? I’m of the mind that if someone wants to tinker, they will tinker, period. Because it’s in their DNA, not because it’s easy, and because by nature, tinkerers don’t play by the rules.
I think that’s where I’m least comfortable with the doom-and-gloom tinkerer’s sunset vision of the future. I have a LOT of faith that our future tinkerers won’t give a crap about the law and crack stuff they find interesting open, regardless, and they’ll figure out how to do it, even if it takes more than typing Ctrl+Reset. Most of the stuff we all hack on is closed in some way, isn’t it? Not that this is an excuse for Apple’s stupidity… more of an observation.
So, I asked about the open v. closed thing being mostly philosophical because the jailbreak community is alive and well. Even though on one hand I’m chagrined they’re spending time and energy developing for a platform that shuns them, on the other, the fact that they exist supports my optimistic outlook about the unflagging dedication of the tinkerer, especially to doing things they’re told not to do. (For better or for worse, optimism is my default setting.)
Even though I am critical of the iPad’s closed nature and agree with Mark and Alex, I won’t go as far as Alex did and say that it represents a dystopian future. I have more faith in our future tinkerers than that.
That all said, I personally will spend my time developing for open systems.
* Regarding Apple’s goal of abstracting away the inner workings of a computer into a device that “just works” by “magic,” Gruber’s automatic versus manual transmission metaphor is a particularly good one. I don’t know how to drive a stick, but it’s literally been on my “things I want to learn” list since I got my license. I’m not a car enthusiast. I just love driving, and a stick shift seems like it would be something I’d really enjoy. Take from that what you will.