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.
Here’s the 1 percent: You still typically need to use iTunes. Sure, Mac and Windows have some alternatives, but I can’t use my iPod Touch on Linux. That’s not philosophical at all for me. It’s very practical and very, very inconvenient. It’s the reason that I’m in Windows right now.
The hardware hacker types are happy to void the warranty.
I know I’d be okay with spending $500 if I would be recognized around the world as “the guy that hacked the ipad”.
a never ending stream of work 😀
What is open..is Google open? Seriously, this isn’t the french revolution and you people aren’t working @ genentech! you’re just making some silly apps…Google isn’t your friend. just get over it allready.
Our friends at Google must be smiling now. They let Apple test the waters. At any time they can produce an Andriod based device mirroring the functionality of the ipad adding Google juice and bit of openness and presto, competition. Look what Google has done with the Nexus.
I’m all about your optimism. And certainly devices that’re more open, relative to the iPad, will catch up with Apple’s hardware eventually. I think a lot of the doomsday commentary (my own included) is an expression of disappointment. Geeks get really excited about awesome hardware.
Well, that and annoyance. Because, disappointment aside, I do think Apple is demonstrating that a closed, controlled ecosystem is their future, and they’re not good gatekeepers.
Luckily no one’s beholden to Apple, right? Still, they’ve been making such good hardware! I’d kill for a solid, multi-touching Android on iPhone hardware.
I think what Mark Pilgrim is getting at is not so much that Apple (and the others that go down this path) is going to be able to stop or discourage people from tinkering. Rather, I think Mark’s suggesting that the computing environment that’s on the horizon isn’t going to provide the opportunity for would-be tinkerers to even consider tinkering.
If the iPad and the iPhone are representative of what’s to come, then future computer users might never even realize that an opportunity to tinker even exists. On the iPad and the iPhone, nothing can ever happen by accident. You can’t chance upon something, change it, and see what happens unless Apple has authorized that experience. When I think about how I came to tinker with computers, that really depresses me. I wasn’t pushed down that path by a book or a knowledgeable friend or parent: I discovered tinkering with my computer by dumb luck.
But in the “seductive and dystopian” future Alex Payne and Mark Pilgrim describe, those chance opportunities won’t happen, unless they’re engineered for us by Apple. In other words, for the future children of non-tinkerers, the *concept* of tinkering with software might never even occur to them.
I like this post a lot and I agree. I’m even a little surprised to hear it from you!
The doom and gloom outlook on the lack of the openness is extremely dramatic (Lifehacker’s recent post in particular by Adam, no offense). Though there are the delays and rejections (which are improving and not as frequent as they were), Apple’s app store control has not prevented the iPhone from getting the most innovative and polished smartphone apps. And just like you said, a normal user does not care about tinkering, just that it will work.
Tinkerers will always have their outlets, but the average user experience gets a lot easier with this approach, and I think it’s a genius move on Apple’s part. I compare the complainers to Linux evangelists who would make an argument that the world should be using Linux. Linux is a tinkerer’s dreamland, but that’s no excuse for it to replace a user-friendly OS like Mac or Windows.
@Ted nailed it.
@Gina, you’re not less important because Apple exist. Try to create something great instead of just fighting windmillsâ˜º
Its not manual v. automatic – I would argue thats probably more a command line v GUI argument. What the iPad represents is the high-tech engine which amateur mechanics lost touch with in the 1990s onwards.
The iPad like the iPod Touch before it requires me to accept the limitations of what the device is intended to do (by Apple) rather than what I want it to do.
It really isn’t “either or”, except in the sense of X or iPad. I usually have a compact laptop or netbook, and there are custom things I have to run (and am never going to bother going through the iTAS). The iPad can’t displace it (my Nokia N810 comes closer – its browser runs flash, it fits in my pocket, and costs half as much).
Economists have pointed out that any regulation – including those by places like Apple – has the hidden side. You see the FDA announce they protected you from a drug which is harmful, but you don’t see those who die or suffer because a safe drug is withheld. You don’t know what innovative applications would exist EXCEPT that they can’t get through (or won’t be submitted) to the process.
If you ran something vital at work that was proprietary, that they would NOT submit to the app store (and couldn’t be web-ized), you would just use your “other” device. So you would have the iPhone, and X, but where then does the iPad fit in? If all you do is browse and run iTunes, any netbook is half the cost as as effective. And you can even do video skype.
Which brings up an iPad question. Do you “sync” it? Do you REQUIRE some other computer to be the mother ship? Or is it the mother ship? Or something between? (I keep thinking Palm’s “Audrey” – and a few other net appliances). With the Kindle, your library is on the mother ship, but the satellite has constant contact. The largest iPad isn’t big enough for my current media library (on my iPod), but isn’t a “cloud” device. If you have media via iPad, can you use it on YOUR iPhone or MacBookPro? At all (assuming you don’t have to purchase copy #2). Or will the books only be viewable on the iPad (shouldn’t there be iPhone/iPod and Mac applications if this is not so).
Normally these gaps would be filled in by 3rd parties, but with Apple’s lockdown, what you see is ALL you will get. Ever.
This doesn’t bother me – I’m not all weepy about it’s not being open. I can’t tweak my TV or verizon phone, or Mifi, or even my cradlepoint routers, but I don’t do anything with them. They are passive appliance devices. But I’m not going to get an iPad since it already is too crippled for it to displace anything I currently use.
So you do a google search on the iPad, but the site that comes up requires flash. Tolerable on the iPhone, but you grab your laptop or netbook. Some document from work is “in the cloud”, but you can’t really download it and do anything with it on the iPad given its format so you pull out your laptop or netbook. At some point the iPad will be left at home and you will just use the worse but complete experience.
Or perhaps someone will point out to Steve Jobs that a complete inability to do what you need to do on a device is “a bad experience”. There is Microsoft Office for the Mac. Not quite as horrid as the windows version but functional. And perhaps going obsolete with openoffice and Google Docs.
Which is a final point or perhaps extends my confusion about syncee or syncor – if you use Google Docs (can I even download or is that a sync), wouldn’t it be better to make THAT a better experience rather than have iWork? Documents aren’t going to stay on the iPad, at best it is a place to edit or read, but if the documents are in the cloud, why not design and use cloud apps? Is there a point in having Keynote without a proper video output? Even Microsoft had mobile (CE – crippled edition) of Word, Excel, etc. for such devices. Is iWorks a full edition (but the isolation makes it less useful), or a limited one (so you still need the main computer to do more than basic editing)?
Maybe “hacking” now includes accessing a DOC or presentation file on a USB stick, connecting to a conference room’s projector, or simply accessing a web page that uses Flash. But Steve won’t let me use his wonderful new device to do any of these things as far as I can tell, so he can keep it. I’ll use one of the Macs if I want something from Apple (which I have). I can do all these things.
Also: Gina – Almost every motorcycle is “a stick” – they have courses where you can learn to ride – and to shift for yourself.
I’m perplexed by the extremist reactions to this device, pro and con. It is, at the end of the day, essentially just an iPod Touch with a big screen and faster processor.
It’s not the savior of the world, it’s not the devil incarnate, it’s just a friggin’ iPod folks! It’s not the greatest thing since sliced bread, nor do I think it was ever intended to be. It’s not an open platform, and I doubt anyone seriously should have thought it would be. Why would anyone of reasonable intelligence and a grip on their emotions believe that a large iPod would suddenly operate under different principles than it’s smaller kin? When WAS the last time you saw a zebra change it’s stripes?
For some, the closed environment will provide the reliability and stability they seek – they want an appliance, not a weekend/weekly project. For others it will provide the reason they seek not to own one. Good for both groups. Some people need that automatic transmission because life is too hectic to care about the clutch, gears, and all that stuff. Some prefer to shift for themselves and the added feeling of control that provides. Neither is wrong, just different.
Each of us has our own needs. No one I’ve yet crossed paths with has reached the needed deity level required to make all encompassing decisions for others. Apple is wrong for doing it, as were Microsoft, IBM, and oh so many others before them, AND SO ARE THOSE WHO WOULD DENY THIS DEVICE TO THOSE TO WHOM IT COULD BE A USEFUL TOOL.
Personally, I see it as a tool to generate more competition in this mid-range hardware/software market. Competition is GOOD – generates new ideas, better performance, standards compliance, and even redefines and expands those standards as demand for new technologies and methodologies become more mainstream.
All in all, it’s just another new product on the market. Apple, believe it or not, is just another company who is trying to make a buck and keep doing so by not becoming stagnant (ala Motorola’s tendency to stop developing new products every few years and then nearly bankrupt the company in so doing). Steve Jobs is not God. He’s just a guy who is a good salesman and knows good design. Read more into him (or Apple) than that and we have the reason so many people are so disappointed I guess. These people probably also believe every whopper the used car salesman drops on them.
I might remind the doom and gloom crowd that when PCs first came out and for several years thereafter, IBM had such tight control over how compatible competitors could be, they effectively had a strangle hold on the market. You could buy Radio Shack/Tandy or a multitude of other knock offs, but each had different limitations in that they were not 100% compatible. Contrast that with today’s wide open x86 derivative marketplace. Keeping an iron fist only works for so long whether it is ruling technology or countries/people. It’s destined to fail, since there is always some revolution or another just around the corner waiting to happen. Thousands of years of recorded history proves this out.
Some of us would seem to need to take a break and relax out in the wilds of society also. Staying cooped up in Geek land isn’t healthy. Having spent a stint recently working directly with the public repairing computers, I can tell you that the average person is far more interested in getting their email, Facebook, Twitter, IM, porn, games, etc, than tweaking their OS or machine. To borrow Gina’s car analogy again, most people want a reliable daily driver, but the grease monkeys prefer the classic car they can restore to their exact specifications. It’s not a black and white universe folks, one stance does not prevent the need for the other, and there are millions of shades of gray between the two.
In fact, the older I get, the more I find a foot in each camp (both cars and technology, sometimes a project or tweaking just the right setup is nice, other times no maintenance is the theme de jour). Life is short, use your limited time here wisely. When you’re on your deathbed, hopefully a great many years in the future, will it have made a difference whether you could change the background image of your iPad ever so exactly just so? Or was it that you could do a bit of research and come up with that cure to cancer that is more important?
And if anyone seriously thinks I expect a cure to cancer to be made on an iPad, please go back on your medications and think about some in patient time in those nice rooms with the padded wallpaper.
Some copyright laws, like the one in my country, allow users to “modify” proprietary software to make two independent programs “work together”, even some reverse engineering is allowed for this. Original purpose was to allow hacking proprietary file formats but understood more generally I can jailbreak and it will be legal (I will loose warranty of course). Hackintosh is a legal thing. Selling it, though, not so. But in general, Psystar would stand much better chances if it was operating in Europe.
So, what I wanted to say, there is a way to fight this. A despotic model Apple adopted would not be possible if there were not legal grounds for it. Screaming at Apple does not work, obviously.
You may argue that market will take care of itself, like it did with Internet Explorer (decision of EU commission came years late and at current market situation seems to be totally unnecessary) – but in Windows, there is not a single egocentric icon that decides which apps I can install.
I am starting to suspect, that disguised under “delivering the best user experience” Jobs might be enjoying not only his money, but his god-like powers even more.
I always think of jailbreaking and other tinkerings in the same vane as hot-rodding. Totally illegal. Potentially dangerous. However, extremely fun and one of the only ways, short of getting a job in the industry, to learn the inner workings of the machine.
I guess the distinction is primarily philosophical, but it’s practical also.
While this category of device is well-overdue, and lots of people have been working on similar concepts (and I do think there’s a market out there for it, even if we don’t know it yet), Apple have broken with tradition and pre-announced a device that they can’t ship yet. This seems to show that they’re very aware of the impending explosion of such devices, and want to be seen as first mover, with all the advantages this entails.
The problem is, when you get this kind of lock-in on mindshare, it’s hard for others to get a look-in. And if the geeks and thought leaders in tech, who would *rather* buy an ‘open’ device (however you choose to define that), end up saying, “the hell with it, I won’t wait, it’s a sexy device and it does so many things right (and I can hack it too)”, well… what market does it leave for those other devices we’d like to see? Not a lot, unfortunately. And Apple have been very clever with the aggressive price point these things start at… this is impulse-buy territory.
If everyone buys the device with the lock-in, and buys into the services with the lock-in, we lose choice. And while the argument that ‘we can hack it’ does have some validity today, will it always? What if somebody brings out a new system that can’t be hacked – at least, within the useful life of the device, and in a simple practical way? It changes the landscape.
It’s been suggested, too, that this device moves us further away from the cloud, not closer. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but I do know I’d feel more comfortable about being able to avail of my choice of different cloud-based platforms, and they being equal citizens, on a more open device.
my issue with the ipad is that it doesn’t deliver the thing i have been hoping to see apple deliver: an affordable device with macOS on it.
i use macs occasionally at work, and i would like to do more with them in civilian life. i already have a ton of linux and windows gear and it’s tough to justify the expense of a mac when i can build 2-4 PCs for the price of a mac desktop, and buy 2 nice laptop PCs for the price of a macbook.
apple refuses to make an affordable tower or notebook and at the same time does its best to thwart hackintoshing and this leaves me disappointed. my hackintosh is ok, but would have been nice to have an entry level macOS device.
i don’t care about iphones or ipods. i tried to configure my wife’s ipod touch for google talk and was astounded at how difficult it was to do. at that point i knew i would never own an iphone or ipod because it looks to me like they are meant for people who have more money than technical ability or common sense.
i am all for a good philosophical discussion about open vs. closed systems and hacking, but my disappointment in the ipad is mostly that i want to buy an affordable device to run macOS.
I think the problem Apple is beginning to have is that they’re both in the device and content business, and tinkering means among other things being able to avoid copyright restrictions. That makes them more willing to make hacking their devices difficult.
Of course that’s a whole business model, but I think companies should embrace and organize hacking of their products, because the easier hacking is, the more people can do it.
Apple should consider that hackers are often also developers.
75% of my family and, I would hazard a guess, over 95% of the general population are consumers when it comes to computers. They browse, email, play music, videos and photo slideshows and occasionally word process or use a spreadsheet.
The iPad is enough of a step up from the iPod Touch and iPhone and provides all of the killer apps that define it as a computer for that 95%. If the iPad is ‘good enough’ as a computer for this group then there is a real danger that it will replace the real PC in many homes.
Now, I’m not concerned about “today’s tinkerers”; the people who read Smarterware or TechCrunch or anyone with the balls to jailbreak their iPhone or iPad. My concern is for the kids who will be growing up with iPad (or it’s progeny) as the only computer in the house. They will never have the opportunity to become tinkerers.
I completely agree with having the ipad closed by default won’t put off the tinkerers. I’ll only be buying one of these well after the hackers have hacked and the results are in on just what you can do with one that is jail broken.
What I can’t work out is why Apple and other companies try and enforce this lock down so strictly. I mean I understand the reason for a closed and controlled system. It relieves any need on the part of the user to have to manage it. No security software to find, no worries about setting up firewalls, no worries about having to defrag or any worries at all beyond just enjoying the apps that come with it or those that have been approved as safe for you to install. I get it.
But why enforce that on people who don’t want it? Let the thing be more easily crackable for the small community that want that. I’ve never understood why the Xbox and PS3 do the same thing and practically outlaw the idea.
Take games as a great example of where closed systems can benefit from being allowed to be opened. Valve, the makers of Half Life ship products that are closed. But if you know where you look you can easily find mods for their games and a whole community exists around this company that cracks open the games and remakes them in whatever way seems cool to do at the time.
Everybody wins in the above example. If you just want to play a stable game that works as intended, you can do that. Tinkerers can install mods and open the game up in ways the developers may never have had time or the inclination to include. Both communities exist and work well. Neither interfere with the other and Valve understand intimately that this cracking community actually benefit them. They keep commercial games selling that have long become tired and jaded. Keep them alive with new content that gets written at no cost to Valve.
Apply this idea to the ipad. Ship it closed, take care of that big community that actually would prefer it closed, but let the hackers open it up and fiddle with it and you’ll be amazed at what cool other things the ipad will end up doing that Apple never thought of, or have time to do.
Will this affect the moms and pops that just want to write email and read the digital newspapers? Absolutely not. Will it harm Apple in any way other than increasing sales to the tinkerers who now see it as a platform they can tinker on? Again, absolutely not.
So where is the harm?
@David Finch. Gina brought this up briefly too. Should you embrace a device that would stifle any understanding of how that device works. I think absolutely you should do that. You do it every time you buy a TV or Microwave or any other appliance.
Are there no longer people around that can create or fix TV’s? Of course there are. Just because a device is closed, doesn’t absolutely ensure it will never be understood enough to allow for developers, engineers, programmers and tinkerers to understand, fix, remake or generally work with it on any level other than using it as intended.
Being closed just puts up a wall that prevents casual inspection of what’s beneath. There’s already a fine example of this in action with game consoles. They don’t reveal any of the inner workings to the end0user but we still have a vibrant community of developers creating software for it. There are official channels you need to go down to develop for it but the channels are there and the closed nature of the system doesn’t prevent anyone from developing for it if they want to.
The same applies to Apples ipad. It’s closed but you can still develop for it if you want to.
Now the special circumstance of giving an ipad to a child as their only computing device. That requires more thought. As a secondary device to a main computer it’s a great idea, but on its own? I guess I’d have to decide that on a by case basis. If it were my son or daughter I’d be asking myself if they show any signs of wanting to be a tinkerer. If that’s a big no then really the ipad seems ideal for them.
This idea that you have to go through some kind of forced basic training with computers to make you understand the innards. Forcing some required path to go on to develop for it, well that’s just some bullsh*t that is.