05 April 2010

The iPad, Hacking and Horrible Metaphors

The Economist: Free Exchange | R.A. | iTinker
My [iPad RSS] reader provides me with a daily serving of reading material that is surprising, challenging, and intense; it's how I found Mr Doctorow's essay. If I had a clunkier technology in front of me, I might learn more about programming from trying to get the damn thing to work. But the time it took me to do that and the poorer quality of the technology would leave me less time to explore the world of knowledge I have available in my fancy, works-for-any-old-fool reader.
R.A. isn't thinking marginally. It's irrelevant whether he, personally, wants to tinker with the iPad. It's irrelevant whether l'homme moyen sensuel is going to tinker with his iPad. The question is what the hacker teetering on the margin of whether or not to develop code for Apple and the iPad ecosystem will want to do.  He is discouraged from tinkering, therefor it is appropriate to say that the iPad paradigm discourages valuable tinkering.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The sophistry continues, with R.A. claiming you could make the same complaint you can about resistance of the iPad to tinkering about "any piece of technology in the average household."
Think about light switches, for example. Homebuilders, these days, put all the wiring inside the walls where you can't see it, and power is generated miles away from sources. Most people couldn't generate a current if their life depended on it; they just know that if you flick the switch the light turns on and if it doesn't you change the bulb or check the circuit breaker (the equivalent of hitting restart) before calling in the experts.
Again with the "most people."  Think marginally!

Besides, a home electrical system is not even remotely similar to an iPad.  I can not overstate how terrible of an analogy that is, in fact.  Your home electrical system is eminently tinker-able.  How can R.A. claim that all you can do to a lightswitch is flick it back and forth?  You can remove light switches and replace them with better ones if you want: ones with dimmers, ones with timers, prettier ones, remote controlled ones, programmable ones, etc. All you need is a screw driver.  (I took one apart when I was ten to see how it worked.)  You are free to pull your electrical outlets out and replace them with cool stuff like these with USB-charging ports built in. Plenty of people in storm-ravaged parts of the country wire generators into their homes' electrical systems.  I'm just getting started.

Just because the blogger himself, or his vision of the average guy, doesn't get his hands dirty with that stuff doesn't stop anyone else.  Home Depot is the fifth largest retailer in the world, so I have to imagine there are still plenty of people getting up to their elbows in their homes' guts, electrical and otherwise.

Sure, a lot of people will call in varying degrees of professionals to handle these tasks for them. But few electricians are willing to do that work for free, while there are tens of thousands of hackers willing to create and distribute code to improve devices.  Apple makes it much more difficult for them to provide that service to society. Even putting aside the issue of hobbyist coders and free distributions, even if you hire someone to create bespoke iPad software for you you still need Apple's approval.  I don't believe there's any way to keep the application created private either.  Not good for a business wanting to commission custom code.

Imagine if you needed the original builder's permission to make any changes to your home's electrical system, and permission took weeks or months to get, and could be denied for byzantine reasons, and certain types of changes would void your home owner's insurance. That's what a house-as-iPad would be like.
Or, if you want to improve the loaf of bread you're eating, you buy different bread—a long way from the old days when people had to learn to bake themselves.
This is another terrible analogy.  Indeed yes, that is the most popular option for getting better bread. But you can still bake your own bread!  There are 16.5 million Google results for "bread recipes," so I'm guessing that's still a fairly common activity when you want something a little different than the couple of dozen options you might find at the store.

The iPad model applied to bread would mean that home baking would be outlawed, it would impossible to get bread unless it came from the grocery store, there would be only one grocery store in town, and that store reserved the right to arbitrarily delay or reject and new types of bread that bakers wanted to sell there, or that customers requested to buy there.

Perhaps something is lost in the erosion of amateur bread-making skills and universal home baking. But much is gained.
Yes, much is gained from the option of buying bread made produced via specialization and trade. No argument there. But it must remain optional. You must retain the options of making your bread yourself, or buying it from many different bakeries, otherwise you don't get those gains.

The argument R.A. is making boils down to "Monopolies have certain efficiencies of scale, and I happen to like the products they produce. Therefore I don't need choices, and neither should you."
I suspect that real tinkerers won't be deterred by the closed box of the iPad. They may use the user-friendly iPad to look up schematics (in a panic) for some other piece of family technology that's lying disassembled on the floor.
Well hell, even an Edsel could be used to prop the barn door open. "There are some uses for it" is about the lowest bar you can set.
it seems clear to me that Apple is making society better off with its products.
Yes. I think they are making society net better compared to a no-iPad world. They'e profiting (presumably) and people are buying, so we've got producer and consumer surplus.  That's not the point though. I don't want to iPad to cease to be.  The issue is whether society would be better off yet if the iPad ecosystem were more open. I contend it would be, and that Apple would be as well in the long run.
And if it's leaving a bunch of would-be tinkerers disappointed, well, someone should get busy satisfying that market.
I'm sure somebody will, eventually. That doesn't stop me from wishing Apple had already.

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