How dare Apple...

The iPad repeats Jobs' all-in-one vision of the 1984 Macintosh 128K

By Simon St. Laurent
January 28, 2010 | Comments: 13

Back in 1984, when the Macintosh 128K had just arrived, I wandered down to Chemung Electronics to take a look at this supposed upgrade from the Apple ][ world. The small screen seemed odd, and the keyboard kind of strange, but I played with MacWrite and MacPaint and poked around. It was okay until I asked the salesman, "so how do I write programs on this thing?"

He laughed - probably reasonably, since I was 13 - and said I'd have to buy that separately. They'd even have to special-order it.

I was shocked and appalled, and figured this was just a contraption for office drones. Why would I buy such a thing? It didn't even have expansion slots!

Four years later I was totally excited to be the proud new owner of a Macintosh SE. A year after that I'd found HyperCard, and started writing useful programs on it. A few years after that I was digging into Pascal and C. The allure of the command line pulled me away to Linux and Windows, but in 2001 I came back to the Mac because of OS X's Unix foundations.

Today, I find myself reading pieces from a lot of good people (Tim Bray, Alex Payne) who share the dismay of my 13-year-old self. How could Apple release a product so exclusively oriented to consumption, rather than production? How could they limit the kind of content that can get on to this device? Why would anyone buy it?

I've disliked Steve Jobs for a long time - for Apple's ferocious assault on Franklin, maker of my clone computer, for the weirdness I felt around that early Mac, and for his killing HyperCard, the software that made me appreciate the Mac. I find the cults of secrecy and control at Apple obnoxious and repellent, and I'm especially unimpressed by their crusade against replaceable batteries.

At the same time, though, I can't find these charges that the iPad is an assault on creativity to be coherent. There are lots of reasons, even beyond their ability to remind me of myself at 13:

  • Lots of people have told me that they don't actually want a computer in all of its creative glory. Some of the functionality is great, perhaps, but too much functionality is overwhelming. Even all of those connectors are far more than they need.
  • Even among the people who welcome the complexity of computers, computers aren't necessarily the place where they want to use their creativity.
  • Creativity finds outlets. I suppose Apple could kill any attempts to build something like HyperCard for the iPad through their control of the App Store - but there's still the Web, and I don't think they can shut that down.

As much fun as I have picking on Apple, and as much as I worry that our obsession with consumption can impair our ability to produce, I just don't think these arguments hold water. Even consuming content in a new context will, I think, spark more creativity than this device can suppress.


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13 Comments

Where there are third-party developers, there are always creative possibilities we cannot yet imagine, but that once experienced will feel... inevitable. Just the raw and limited capabilities I saw in the Jobs presentation were enough to show the promise: Keynote, Pages, and Brushes. If that's not "creating" I'm not sure what it is. No it's not FinalCut, Photoshop, or Illustrator. It's not Logic or even GarageBand. But anyone who has used them knows that running "pro" tools on a limited environment like even most laptops can be tricky and not all that creative.

Until Moore's Law makes the iPad as capable in power and memory and storage as the devices we use to do intense "creative" work, the iPad may not be the place I do those things. But if it can be the 80/20 device, and doesn't need the extra Wacom tablet I've been dragging everywhere, that will be pretty damn amazing.

And from what I saw, I'll be able to do at *least* 80% of the things I'm doing now, but with 80% more fun ;) using direct manipulation of the screen. I'm assuming I will adjust to the "soft" keyboard, but even if I don't -- adding the external keyboard when required (writing a ton) -- doesn't sound like a big problem.

From Rob Koberg: Gotta love the humor.

http://img192.imageshack.us/img192/7995/appleipad.jpg

I loved my old Mac Plus, and I can see why you think the iPad is like the old toasters.

I think the idea is that you will use your Mac to do all that kind of serious stuff like programming or connecting external devces, then WiFi or BlueTooth to the iPad, then sync wireless to your iPhone and iPod. Each additional piece of iCrap reduces the stuff that all the other pieces need to be good at.

In the future, every object from table to plate to salami will be some kind of electronic gizmo trying to help us consume. Knives and forks will be useable as mouses. We will be able to talk to everyone except whoever is with us, and see everywhere except where we are.

What I find interesting here is that if Jobs and crew are successful, they will make an application sales model work that has failed for all other general computing devices: Texas Instruments with their TI-99 series (et al) tried to force developers to pay TI for licensing fees for every software package they sold for that platform. That didn't work very well.

Game consoles and phones seem to be a natural place for that kind of marketing model since the spin from manufacturers is that they want to control the quality of applications running on the device: Apple used that as an excuse for limiting applications that run on the iPhone to prevent the device from being disabled as a phone in critical situations, etc.

Does that same model that Apple used to justify the iPhone's app store apply to the iPad given that it doesn't have a phone? I personally don't think so. The iPad is bridging the spectrum of computing in the area between mobile devices that are essentially telephones and general purpose computers. It may be a slippery slope that brings the concept of the closed environment of manufacturer-approved software to desktop computing.

This process may be leading to a point where the 'average' computer is an appliance like any other. Outside of my technical colleagues, most of the people I know use their systems as web browsers and email clients. For them, a computer that provides a protected and limited environment may be a better tool: one that is less likely to be 'infected' or simply messed-up by the user themselves. The question to me is: what market segment is that? If that's 80% of the users, how will that affect the availability and cost of more 'general purpose' devices for those of us who need that functionality.

I think in this announcement, though I find the features not exactly revolutionary - maybe a step up in cool at most, has the potential to disrupt the spectrum of computing devices at a much deeper level than I have seen commented upon anywhere. I think this post of yours points to the discomfort that some of us feel with the iPad as a tightly vertically-integrated product that bridges appliance and general purpose computing.

There are more questions than answers at this point, but I'd watch for how this model might be amplified in a world where things like the ACTA treaty can be secretly negotiated by multi-national bodies: if this model is a success and also serves the corporate interests of those who support initiatives like ACTA, the restrictions inherent in the App Store Device model may begin to look very attractive to a broader section of consumer computing manufacturers, and that would change the landscape of general purpose computing at very deep levels.

The thing about creativity is that it responds poorly to central planning and central control. I have no problem with the fact that the iPad isn't developer-friendly -- I can buy a Netbook with twice the power for half the price and code on it (and, BTW, that netbook makes just as simple a consumer device).

My problem is the idea that a single Apple politburo controls everything that can appear on the device. Is that the future? Even in the bad old days of TV, before cable, there were 3 1/2 US networks to choose from, not just one - you had to watch TV outside the US to see just how bad things could get with a single, government-controlled broadcaster (I grew up in Canada, but close enough to watch the US stations, thank god).

Apple's obsession with central control goes beyond software to hardware. There must be some kind of port for the optional keyboard to plug into, but no way it's going to be USB or Firewire, because that might let someone use an *unplanned* creative device on the iPad, someone creative daring not to give Apple its cut (and veto). If I build something clever for creative people using a USB interface, it will work with desktop towers, notebooks, netbooks, and even some small portable devices, but *not* with the iPad.

Apple has some smart people working there, but they won't always have the best ideas, and Apple has thrown up too many barriers to other people with smart ideas. The best apps in the future are going to come from a couple of students coding in a dorm room, and they might just be so annoyed by Apple censorship that they defect to a freer platform. It's sad that things have gotten to the point that even Windows is a freer platform than Apple.

Uh, why does everything Apple release have to be for you to program on? Were you equally disturbed at the release of the ipods? Do you miss not being able to code C++ on ipods?

I suppose if you are a programmer, you see the world's devices as nothing but things to hack into, program on, and tinker with. Much like the proverbial hammer sees all problems as nails.

Here's the funny thing about your and Alex's 13-year old complaints (and there might be something to that 13-year old coming back out from your inner being, but I'll leave that to a shrink): Apple released a very cool monster SDK. Since you have Max OS X already, you are set to be a developer for the iPad.

Sooooo.... Mr. Super Programming 13-year old Geek.... I recommend that you create a program that actually lets you program on the iPad itself! Genius!

Plus, you'll then be rich, rich, rich beyond your wildest dreams. That is of course, if you can find enough ex-13-year olds to buy the thing. I was just thinking a good code editor would at least be nice. A kind of TextMate for iPad. Or Aptana IDE... something like that. You wouldn't do full-blown code from scratch (probably), but you could take a project out into the wild (literally!) and ponder bugs while getting a tan - something all code geeks could use a little more of. Maybe you could have a really cool help system built in - you know PHP, C, etc... Or just combine the help files of all the main stuff into one big monster searchable thing.

Thomas - I'm thinking you read this too fast, and missed that I was actually picking on myself at 13 and challenging the arguments you object to.

Somehow you seem to have missed " I can't find these charges that the iPad is an assault on creativity to be coherent... I just don't think these arguments hold water." Well, actually pretty much the second half of the post.

With a revolutionary, 9.7 inch touch screen, and amazing new apps,the new Apple iPad is really a better multi-functional option than tablet PC, netbook, or e-reader.
Currently the price is not available in GDB. I'm waiting for the price to arrive in UK and lower a little bit if possible.

Thomas - I don't think you get the jist or depth that is being said here. Apple (King Jobs), is "dumbing things down" to the point of being less productive and creative for the user, but more controlled and profitable for the corporation, and it's affiliates.

You made some really shallow remarks like "programming on the iPod." Please, it's just a music player. Like the iPhone, it's limited abilities are understandable.

iPad however, is not really a practical device. It's a niche item, very limited for users, but designed for big profit from Apple Media sales.

Macs used to come loaded with useful ports. Now you can't even get a Consumer Mac with FireWire. Thomas, you likely won't understand what I, or other posts here are getting at, so I won't go further, except to say; You're the perfect consumer for todays (and tomorrows) products!

Sorry John but except for the white macbook and macbook air all of the macs have firewire ports.

The one thing that apple has been good at has been moving forward in the face of great outrage. We lost the floppy drive with the early iMacs and that caused a major amount of anger in the community, it seems that we're ok without floppy drives now.

There was a lot of flak over the macbook air and it's lack of ports, etc. Steve Jobs response to the critics was that 'it's not for you'. Which is good because if he caved on all the comments we would have a less polished product in the end.

I knew that whatever they released it wouldn't live up to the hype but it seems that apple is moving forward quite nicely.

Simon,

Have you actually used the iPad at all? I'm assuming you weren't invited to the unveiling event, or else you would have mentioned your own experiences with the device. Moreover it sounds like you're not a developer. I'm surprised you can't think of any uses for such a device based on specs and video tutorials alone. I could imagine a graphing calculator that trumps anything made by Texas Instruments! I guess you're old enough to recall 1984 so you're probably just a pundit at this point. Please come back and complain about "all in one" when the product is actually on sale and you have used 3rd party apps.

Thanks!
Wilson

I'm really starting to wonder if the iPad is a mirror for people's own opinions, as the last few comments seem only to have read the first few paragraphs and then jumped off into their own visions of iPad as heaven or hell.

In the hopes that people will read the last few paragraphs a little more closely, I've bolded some sentences. I clearly should have been more direct from the outset.


After spending the last 2 days getting 'internet security 2010' and it's nastiness off my mother in laws laptop I'm very seriously considering getting one of these for her.

She tries to do the right thing and it's really not her fault that she got hit. However, she uses the computer for the following:

card games,
email,
some travel bookings

if the ipad can talk to a printer then there will be no need for her laptop then it will be the best 500 bucks I've ever spent.

there are folks who just want something that works, the vocal minority on the web should be ignored if at all possible.

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