posted by Thom Holwerda on Mon 1st Feb 2010 16:25 UTC
IconWhile 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 trespass?"

"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 Ctrl-Reset 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 run."

"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 all works."

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 own computer.

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 illegal."

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."

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