While the iPad can certainly be debated as a product, people on the
internet are discussing not the product, but the
shift devices like the iPhone and iPad represent: a shift away from a
computer being accessible to it being something closed and
impenetrable. Is this a future we want for ourselves?
In a beautiful
piece called "Tinkerer’s
Sunset", Mark Pilgrim
writes about how devices like the iPad will eventually mean the end of
‘tinkerers’. It starts with the cringe-inducing anecdote about DVD Jon,
who ended up in court over breaking CSS on DVDs. He was accused of
"unauthorized computer trespassing", and DVD Jon’s lawyers logically
asked the prosecutors the following question: "On whose computer did he
"His own," the prosecutors answered.
Mull over that one for a second.
Just like Pilgrim, I grew up in a household with computers – albeit much
later than him, of course (since I’m considerably younger). We got our
first personal computer in 1990 or 1991 (I was 6 or 7 years old), a 286
with MS-DOS and Windows 3.x. I still have the incredibly detailed
manuals for this machine, from monitor to motherboard, to dot-matrix
printer and more. I also have two gigantic manuals for MS-DOS and
Windows 3.x, which also came as part of this machine, as well as the
original, pristine 3.5" floppy disks for DOS and Win 3.x.
The father of a friend of mine ran a computer shop during those days. I
didn’t know him yet back then, but a few weekends ago, that friend
surprised me with promotional materials and price listings from those
days – and it turned out it was about, among others, the exact same
machine I had as a child! Reminisce abound (supposedly, they have a few
old 286 and 386 laptops lying around from those days, so hopefully I’ll
be able to get my hands on one for OSNews).
Back in those days, I, too, dabbled with programming. I don’t know why,
exactly, but at some point I decided not to pursue that particular past
time. Coincidentally, this was around the time I got a NES for my
birthday, and on top of that, I pretty much spent my entire childhood
playing outside anyway.
Pilgrim’s path is different, obviously, and I’m sure many can relate
with him. One day, when Pilgrim was 10 years old, his father came home
with a computer, an Apple ][e. "As it happens, this computer came with
the BASIC programming language pre-installed. You didn’t even need to
boot a disk operating system. You could turn on the computer and press
and you’d get a prompt," Pilgrim writes, "And at this prompt, you could
type in an entire program, and then type
RUN, and it would
"By age 12, I was writing BASIC programs so complex that the computer
was running out of memory to hold them," he adds, "By age 13, I was
writing programs in Pascal. By age 14, I was writing programs in
assembly language. By age 17, I was competing in the Programming event
in the National Science Olympiad (and winning). By age 22, I was
employed as a computer programmer."
Pilgrim argues that you don’t become a programmer by hacking, but by
tinkering. "It’s the tinkering that provides that sense of wonder,"
Pilgrim states, "You have to jump out of the system, tear down the
safety gates, peel away the layers of abstraction that the computer
provides for the vast majority of people who don’t want to know how it
The paradigm that the iPad and similar devices present do not enable
this tinkering. While that may not be a problem for people who already are
programmers, it will become a problem for people who don’t yet
know they’re programmers. Yes, you can develop for the iPad too, but you
need to pay for it, which will give you a certificate – which is
actually a cryptographic key giving you slightly more access to your
Sure, you can jailbreak, but that’s besides the point, Pilgrim argues.
"I don’t want to live in a world where you have to break into your own
computer before you can start tinkering," he writes, "And I certainly
don’t want to live in a world where tinkering with your own computer is
I find it very hard to disagree with him. Do you want to live in a world
where there’s no such thing as "your" computer? Where you can go to
jail for breaking into "your" computer? A world where children are
discouraged from learning how "their" computers work? It seems that this
is clearly the direction Apple is going towards. I wouldn’t be
surprised to see that 5-10 years from now, Macs will be just as closed
as iPhones and iPads.
"Apple has declared war on the tinkerers of the world," Pilgrim
concludes his post, "With every software update, the previous generation
of ‘jailbreaks’ stop working, and people have to find new ways to break
into their own computers. There won’t ever be a MacsBug for the iPad.
There won’t be a ResEdit, or a Copy ][+ sector editor, or an iPad Peeks
& Pokes Chart. And that’s a real loss. Maybe not to you, but to
somebody who doesn’t even know it yet."