On iPad Punditry and Curmudgeons


I’ve been otherwise occupied (the reasons for that will be apparent soon), but I’ve also been sneaking a peek at all the arguments about what the iPad means (or rather, what a bunch of pundits would like to think it might mean) for a nebulous something called “the future of computing”.

I hate to break it to you, guys, but there is hardly any “future” left in the word “computing” as far as the mass market is concerned.

And that’s simply because the very definition of computing has been constantly evolving, and fast going the way of the appliance – it’s just that most of the people complaining about that have been involved in it far too deep and for far too long to pay attention to the outside of it.

Which is one of the reasons I completely agree with Fraser Speirs when he puts forward the notion that the industry is suffering from future shock.

People who buy computers don’t want computers, they want solutions, mostly in the same way that people who buy mobile phones don’t want phones, they want to communicate – and, of course, there are a lot more ways to these days to communicate besides talking, but that’s not my point.

Knee-Fu

But since I brought up the mobile angle… A great example of future shock on the mobile side that I personally found pretty funny is that Nokia, the very company that touted their N-series devices as “multimedia computers”, has had such a knee-jerk reaction – focusing on their bulk but quite handily omitting the fact that the vast majority of their handsets (in terms of volume sold) are nowhere near “smart”.

Nokia are still the largest logistics company in the industry, but personally I’d have stayed put and not written anything, regardless how much Steve irked me – especially if I was in charge of social media, where Ovi isn’t exactly making bundles of cash (last time I checked they clocked in at between 1-2% of Nokia’s overall revenue, and that was way before they started giving stuff away for free).

And yeah, I know some folk at Nokia think of me as an Apple fanboy. I don’t think they even realize what I actually do for a living or how much their top tier line-up is unsatisfactory to customers… but that is the sort of discussion that warrants both another post1 and another reference to my disclaimer.

Tinker Toys

Anyway, there’s another kind of narrow-mindedness making the rounds – the one that points to the iPad as the end of tinkering or as limiting creativity.

Out of respect for a bunch of people, I’m going to avoid the “this is not for creative persons” meme here – I first became aware of it here at Tim Bray’s and watched bemusedly as it was brayed (sorry, re-blogged and re-posted) by the usual “me too” folk, and rate it as much of a knee-jerk reaction as Nokia’s.

So I’ll just pick up Mark Pilgrim’s brilliant and passionate piece as a way of introducing the tinkering topic and start out by saying that having spent most of my working life straddling the computing and mobile industries, I have my own particular view on the whole thing, and to explain it to you I have to tell you a story of sorts.

The Really, Really Hard Stuff

My father was a diamond cutter – the whole story’s probably worth a book in and by itself, but the short of it is that he worked as a jeweler, displayed a knack for gems, and eventually retired at the peak of his profession (to the point of turning down an offer to work for De Beers), all the while always joking about how cut diamonds are just “pretty rocks” – he literally didn’t care about the value of them, but rather about the problem of turning them into the best possible gemstones.

His job was of the kind that required as much art as maths if it was to be done properly, not just because diamonds don’t shard themselves into nice faceted little rocks but because there were always two key metrics associated with cutting a stone:

  1. how much of the material you kept after removing all the impurities (i.e., weight)
  2. the quality you got out of the final shape (i.e., the amount of light the stone refracted and reflected internally to look shiny)

My father happened to be good at designing ways to do both by painstakingly working out with a slide ruler the maths and steps required to cut the stones into a particular shape (or rather, a style, but a documented and repeatable one), as well as finding ways to better classify the raw stock and increasing the probability that you’d actually be able to get a good yield out of any given batch of stones2.

It was the actual hit-and-miss process of turning them from raw, uncut material into actual jewels that he honed to a smooth precision, and in a business of minutiae, he not just found an edge but also carved his own niche out of it3.

And he kept up with it – as my father’s slide rule and painstakingly calligraphed tables slowly mutated into Excel spreadsheets (he’s still a whiz at it) and the copper disks impregnated with diamond dust were replaced with cutting lasers, he kept polishing that edge.

And all the while he busied himself at home with carpentry and hobby electronics to a point where you’d be very hard pressed not to call him a “hacker” in the straight sense of the word – even if it wouldn’t ordinarily make sense to apply that term to building furniture (yes, folks, IKEA hasn’t been around for ever) and fixing or building all sorts of gadgetry.

To put things into perspective, I remember his tinkering as far back as when a “power” transistor was the size of a key fob and hardly smaller than vacuum tubes, and by the time I was able to read properly there were folk discussing integrated circuits and loop counters in copious amounts of English and Spanish electronics magazines and books that he had amassed up to that point.

I remember when the Z80 was the hot new thing, for it was sitting at home after school and poring over those books and magazines that steered my own predisposition to tinker with things towards computing.

But the key bit, so to speak, is that technology moved on in such a way that there were new things to tinker with when I started scratching that particular itch.

Going Soft

Looking back, I think that the moment when that was most apparent was when he bought our first computer (the Sinclair ZX81, then available in kit form). That was when things clicked for me – it made a lot more sense for me to fiddle with the software than with the hardware, for I was too brash and impatient for working out circuit diagrams and etching PCBs.

I eventually came to actually do some design work on hardware and silicon, but the point here is that somewhere near the early 90s, the stuff that I had grown up with was not the most interesting to tinker with – the raw electronics that were inside the VAX crates or the Macs used to login remotely via a funky terminal server were pretty much closed systems from a hardware perspective4.

But those “closed” portions never stopped me from learning or tinkering with what I wanted to – it just made it even more interesting to tinker with the software constraints that the hardware imposed, because it became a mind game – and all tinkering, regardless of physical dependencies, is essentially a mind game – you have to understand the puzzles to put things in the right places.

Padded Rooms

Now, my take on the people who think the iPad and the degree Apple’s closed it down to work like it actually should (i.e., as a personal computing appliance) is somehow going to perform mass lobotomy on the next generation of tinkerers is pretty simple:

Those people are, quite simply, too over the hill and set in their ways to think outside their little boxes.

Moreover, they don’t realize that there will never be any shortage of ways for people who are prone to tinkering to pulling things apart and figuring it out for themselves – it’s just human nature. We’re monkeys. We like to prod things (even if only metaphorically) and get into all sorts of trouble (not just metaphorically).

If anything, there will be more and different things to explore, and as a second-time parent (which is, incidentally, why I’ve been otherwise occupied, with a healthy dose of dejá vu), I look forward to watching my kids pick whatever little niche or edge they want to explore and hone it to perfection, be it in whatever passes for computers in a decade or in something else that we cannot fathom at all.

Still, I find it fascinating that Mark wants to use the same computer for 20 years. I get his view – I focused on the data side of things myself, and I do want to have a sense of continuity in my computing experience, but like my father before me, I’m willing to keep learning and upgrade my tools to use whatever is right for the task at hand.

When All You Have Is Not a Hammer

And since the kinds of tasks I’ve had tossed into my lap have been shifting wildly over the years, I tend to be very pragmatic – I think of stuff like the iPad as a lever.

A simpler, better one, to rid me of the cruftiness of traditional computing and (if it delivers, something yet to be proven over the years) improve my ability to do all the other stuff I now need to do that isn’t about computers.

Considering that Archimedes only needed a place to stand to move the world. I think that the people ranting on about how the iPad is unsuitable for whatever arcane use case they think they want it to fit (and bearing in mind that 99.999% of them have no experience whatsoever with the device) just need to figure out where to stand to use this particular kind of mental lever.

My guess is that they’ll come around – if not to this device, then to the avalanche of clones that is sure to follow.

The Equalizer

It bears mentioning, as a sort of escape clause, that I’ve been wrong before – only last year I wrote:

And no, I don’t think there will be an Apple webpad springing forth from the iPhone platform, or a cheaper Air (what would they call it – MacBook Vacuum?). Apple’s not really into managing roadmaps for multiple form factors.

Guess what, they are – by simply making them all the same platform, which is the next logical step being debated as I type this – and, for the record, I happen to think that is OK.

(cue desperate wailing from the folk who fear for the future of Mac OS X on the desktop)

Any which way it rolls… Welcome to the future, folks. It’s one hell of a ride.

1 I never really updated this one, but it gives you the gist of things.

2 Buying stones is in itself a key part of the work – it’s not like in the movies, where two impeccably dressed men with monocles will casually toss over a bunch of pretty shards of glass atop a black velvet table and haggle. If you think of it that way, you literally don’t have a clue, but, again, it would all be a pretty long story to tell here.

3 I find it funny that his career was not completely dissimilar from my own so far, in the sense that going off into tangents seems to be a family trait of sorts…

4 Well, at least I had very little inclination to pop them open at the time, although I did pull some stunts like assembling a working SE/30 out of dead machines – I did learn how to solder, after all…