letterman DIYPad: The iPad: A maker's roundup

Oh, my — we’re certainly in the midst of a scrum, aren’t we? A shark’s frenzy of pundits who received the new gadget are trumpeted its virtues across the Web. Xeni’s review called the iPad a touch of genius. Levy declared the device giant leap for personal computers. Letterman licked it, and Woz is buying two.

DIYPad_badge.jpgStephen Fry says don’t knock it until you try it. Mossberg weighed in with a sober but positive review, while Pogue, acknowledging the seemingly burgeoning ranks of frantic Apple haters, wrote two reviews, one for “techies,” and one for everyone else. There were negative voices as well, mutters about removable batteries and USB ports, and how the iPad was just a big Touch or a crippled netbook.

Then Cory Doctorow launched a broadside:

Most of the really exciting stuff hasn’t come from big corporations with enormous budgets, it’s come from experimentalist amateurs. These people were able to make stuff and put it in the public’s eye and even sell it without having to submit to the whims of a single company that had declared itself gatekeeper for your phone and other personal technology.

He not only attacked the iPad as a closed device, but also the very idea of Apple’s content ecosystem — the so-called walled garden approach that makes life easier for millions upon millions of users who don’t have time to tinker with settings, who want their electronics to simply work the first time. But at what price? What are we giving up for this ease-of-use?

Doctorow hails the Maker Manifesto: “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it” to suggest that making the device closed, for both hardware and software, made it unworthy of any true creative person.

As an adult, I want to be able to choose whose stuff I buy and whom I trust to evaluate that stuff. I don’t want my universe of apps constrained to the stuff that the Cupertino Politburo decides to allow for its platform. And as a copyright holder and creator, I don’t want a single, Wal-Mart-like channel that controls access to my audience and dictates what is and is not acceptable material for me to create.

Doctorow concludes his post with this decree:

If you want to live in the creative universe where anyone with a cool idea can make it and give it to you to run on your hardware, the iPad isn’t for you.

If you want to live in the fair world where you get to keep (or give away) the stuff you buy, the iPad isn’t for you.

If you want to write code for a platform where the only thing that determines whether you’re going to succeed with it is whether your audience loves it, the iPad isn’t for you.

While a compelling argument, gaping holes were exposed by commenters, as well in two devastating ripostes. BoingBoing reader mr_josh unleashed this zinger:

You don’t think that I should buy an iPad? I don’t think that _you_ should buy a car that was made after about 1975. I can strip a small block Chevy engine down to it’s bare pieces in the middle of nowhere with only the small complement of tools that I carry in the car and have it back together and on the road without so much as asking for a second pair of hands. I also compile my own Linux kernels and make my food from scratch and build my own furniture.

I also want an iPad. And if it’s awesome, I’ll tell everyone about it that I feel might benefit from knowing. I will because I buy things that are genuinely _useful_ to me.

Two technobloggers joined the fray to contradict Cory’s argument. In an article topped with a picture of the bombastic title villain of The Big Lebowski, Joel Johnson also drew a comparison to things in our lives we simply expect to work, need to work consistently:

Computers becoming appliances. Is this so bad? Computers that do amazing, new things that also happen to be extremely reliable? Is it worth pushing all of that innovation and engineering excellence aside because it’s more comfortable to hold onto an idealized vision of a future that never came to pass? The market gave open source 15 years to do a proper consumer desktop operating system.

There is absolutely nothing about the iPad that portends the end of innovation, tinkering, programming, design. If that were the case, there wouldn’t be 150,000 applications on the App Store right this second. So what if you can’t make iPad programs on an iPad. I don’t complain I can’t make new dishwashers with my dishwasher.

The old guard has The Fear. They see the iPad and the excitement it has engendered and realize that they’ve made themselves inessential–or at least invisible. They’ve realized that it’s possible to make a computer that doesn’t break, doesn’t stop working, doesn’t need constant tinkering. Unlike a car, it’s possible to design a computer that is bulletproof. It just turns out that one of the ways to make that work is to lock it down. That sucks, but it certainly appears to be a better solution than design by committee gave us for the last couple of decades.

But the most devastating rebuttal came from John Gruber, who also brought up the car and appliance metaphors mentioned by mr_josh and Joel. Doctorow had waxed nostalgic about typing BASIC programs in to his Apple ][+ as a kid, and bemoaning how the kids of today would be robbed of this experience by a latter-day Apple that evidently lacks that Woz-like hacker spirit. Gruber’s post, titled The Kids Are All Right, tells of getting an email from a teenage programmer named Sam Kaplan, who was selling an app in the App Store.

He’s 13 years old and he has created and is selling an iPad app in the same store where companies like EA, Google, and even Apple itself distribute iPad apps. His app is ready to go on the first day the product is available. Not a fake app. Not a junior app. A real honest-to-god iPad app. Imagine a 13-year-old in 1978 who could produce and sell his own Atari 2600 cartridges.

Somehow I don’t think young Mr. Kaplan sees the iPad as hurting his sense of wonder or entrepreneurism.

So, makers…

What does that mean for us? Forget the stereotypes, Apple fanboys versus the people who brought us a decade of flashing 12:00s on our VCRs. The iPad will be hacked and jailbroken within weeks, if not days, allowing for all sorts of possibilities. There will be iPads running Linux and playing Vorbis files. Competitors will scramble to replicate the iPad’s success while incorporating features Apple has ignored.

What do you think? Which argument do you find the most compelling? Should we have to jailbreak our iPods and root our Nexus Ones to do what we want with them? What would a DIYPad look like? Will you be buying one? Does that make you a traitor to the “maker movement,” or are the issues and circumstances grayer than that? We’ve love to hear your thoughts.

John Baichtal

My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal nerdage.net


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