Why the iPad will not bring along a “Tinkerers Sunset”

Tue, Feb 2, 2010


Mark Pilgrim writes in a thoughtful piece titled “Tinkerers Sunset” that Apple’s shift towards closed devices effectively serves as a roadblock for those looking to tinker with technology, and what effect that may have on tomorrow’s generation.

Now, I am aware that you will be able to develop your own programs for the iPad, the same way you can develop for the iPhone today. Anyone can develop! All you need is a Mac, XCode, an iPhone “simulator,” and $99 for an auto-expiring developer certificate. The “developer certificate” is really a cryptographic key that (temporarily) allows you (slightly) elevated access to… your own computer. And that’s fine — or at least workable — for the developers of today, because they already know that they’re developers. But the developers of tomorrow don’t know it yet. And without the freedom to tinker, some of them never will.

On the surface, Pilgrim makes a strong, albeit, emotional case. But the reality is that it’s not Apple’s responsibility to nurture a generation of tinkering tots. Besides, fiddling around with and learning about technology is as easy and accessible today as it’s ever been. With an infinite amount of resources on the web, and hardware shockingly cheap and affordable, tinkerers have more at their disposal than ever before.

One commentor on ycombinator chimed in:

Now I can pay Apple $99 per year (in 2009 dollars) and get the ability to write iPhone programs, using pro-level tools, and install any iPhone program I want on my personal phone and those of my friends. Or I can build a web app in Javascript or Ruby or whatever and share it with all my friends, without asking anyone’s permission, for $9 a month in hosting. (Or pay-as-you-go hosting on the cloud, if uptime is no concern.) Or, if I really want a machine that is completely open and ready to run Linux on, I can buy one for pocket change. I’ve literally given away the equivalent of three Linux PCs in the last few months because I don’t have enough space in the back of my closet.

Another commentor opines:

I really don’t understand the wave of alarmist posts on the ‘end of a tinkering era’. Today, we have more communities and devices for tinkering than we’ve ever had. Magazines like Make, sites like Hack-a-day, platforms like Arduino, and countless open source projects that are simply there to be messed with, and one device that comes out with a (probably) justified need to be locked down, and everyone raises panic? If I ever have the desire to mess with anything technological today, I can literally get my hands on anything, from affordable FPGA boards with great I/O, to open mobile devices, to even RF hacking! (GNU Radio’s great.)The iPad will never harm anyone’s ability to tinker with technology that want to. There will always be platforms that are open by design and always be platforms that have been rooted/hacked/jailbroken/etc. Being a geek/hacker today is far more socially acceptable and wide-spread than it was in the 80s. I’d even argue that it is doing much more to advance the technology than a completely open device like OpenMoko. Completely open devices are rarely better designed than their commercial counterparts. They don’t inspire complete neophytes (“I have to do what just to get a decent resolution?”), they don’t push boundaries — they only appeal to people who are already waist-deep in tinkering.

In response to Pilgrim’s thesis of sorts, Joel of Johnson lays out a number of reasons why Pilgrim’s point of view falls flat.

You learned to love technology by tinkering? That’s great! Please explain to me how a closed ecosystem like Apple’s will impede a curious child’s ability to explore in the least way. It’s not 1980. It doesn’t cost a month’s salary to buy a computer. And as long as it takes code to make programs, there will still be plenty of “real” computers around.

Worse, this inviolate right to tinker you claim, the oh-so-horrible future you’re trying to frighten everyone with literal think-of-the-children fearmongering, is the imagined possibility that future engineers won’t be able to create their own tools.

Well guess what? Only shade-tree tweakers give a flip about creating their own tools. Most people want to use the quality tools at hand to create something new.

It’s as if, somewhere along the way, people forgot what computers are supposed to be used for in the first place.

Apple is selling a product. They’ve chosen to keep it closed for demonstrably reasonable benefits. And—yes, okay!—several collateral benefits that come from controlling the marketplace that services their products.

But Apple is not the government. There’s no mandate to buy an Apple product except the call of excellence. And if you think the average persona on the street doesn’t recognize both the ups and downs of buying into an Apple ecosystem, you’re eyeing them with the typical nerd myopia, looking down your nose with the same autistic disdain you cultivated in high school.



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