The geek civil war

"It's Mine! My own, my precious!"

The geeks are at war. Which side will you choose? Are you with the Hackers? Or are you with the Shinies? At the heart of the fight is a device of such divisive power that it might as well have been forged in the fires of Mordor, where the Shadows lie.

The question tearing geekdom apart is whether the iPad is the second coming, or a spawn of the devil. The two positions can be resumed to the following: The Hackers object to the device being closed, just another example of Apple’s growing strategy to lock customers in. The Shinies like it, because it’s cool and it shines and it’s going to revolutionise media.

Many people have said what I mean better than I could. Besides Cory Doctorow, John Naughton has been extremely eloquent in letting us know why there might be something wrong with the iPad. For the Shinies, Nick Sweeney and Ian Betteridge have expressed some interesting opinions about why the iPad is good, and how it will change computing.

The core of the argument is openness versus usability, but one that goes beyond the old proprietary vs non-proprietary source code debates. The importance of the debate is that it lies right at the heart of the future of computing. Do we continue paying Apple exorbitant prices to produce beautiful products for us, or do we go for more open devices?

As an Apple customer, I have to admit that I have fallen prey to the aura of coolness surrounding their products. I own two iPods, a 60 GB 5th gen that I use mostly as storage device, and an iPod Touch, which is one of the most beautiful things I own. I also own a MacBookPro, which has been an amazing tool as a road warrior and seasoned conference presenter. I really like that it is a laptop that allows one to make the best of a presentation, and there is no doubt why the pros use it.

Joi Ito captures the second yours truly decides to buy a Mac.

Having said that, I am becoming more and more annoyed with Apples lock-in strategy. So, I cannot install anything on their devices other than pre-approved software? I’m not asking for much Steve, I do not want to hack the entire device and install Ubuntu on it, I just want a bit of openness!  But no, Apple has decided that the consumer does not choose, they get what they get, and that’s it. True, it will work beautifully for the vast majority, but I do not want to be locked in an all-encompassing media store. Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m getting old and grumpy, but iTunes is beginning to scare me.

I am getting so annoyed with Apple, that I am seriously considering replacing my laptop. Being the flashy slave of tech-fashion that I am (note the sarcasm please) I recently placed a laptop skin on my Mac.


Someone told me at a conference “But you cannot tell it’s a Mac!” That, I think, is sort of the point.

So, shall I be buying an iPad soon? Sorry but no. It is a big iPod Touch, and I have one of those already. Besides, the name is still silly.

9 thoughts on “The geek civil war

  1. I think the name iPad is a direct reference to the work done at Xerox where they called the three different sized devices Tabs, Pads and Boards…

    In any case I think the whole Hackers vs iPad Fans is ridiculous. This whole debate reminds me of the horror stories being told about the iPhone closing down the possibility of human freedom (or something equally overblown). Strangely that didn't happen. No doubt the iPad will be jailbroken in the next couple of weeks, hackers will have fun installing Linux on it and the rest of us will have a wide choice of Tablet like devices including the iPad if we have the inclination.

    What is interesting is that Weiser and his chums at Xerox were so far ahead of the game that they not only saw this coming in 1991 they actually built a lot of this technology..

    • Hi David,

      I never doubted that hackers would break the protection and load Linux on it. That is not the point. The iPhone is a lock in device, just as the iPod Touch. As I mentioned I own a nice iPod Touch, but I am locked into iTunes because it will not sync my music with any other software. This is really annoying, I know that I could install another OS on it, but I don't want to. I want my device to be interoperable with other software if I choose to do it, and I feel strongly that I do not have to become a hacker in order to do it.

      I will not be buying an iPad because I do not want to be locked in. My pad hopes rest on the Notion Ink Adam, which looks beautiful, runs Android and is supposed to have an astounding battery life.

  2. I think we are seeing some strange manifestation of a technological unconscious being effected whereby the passage to technology that is indeed 'magical', in the Arthur C. Clarke sense of being beyond the comprehension of the user to know what is going on beneath the surface, is reflected in a social despair.

    I wonder if they feel the same about the fridge? washing machine? car? etc. There is clearly something interesting about the movement towards a computing appliance that gets people all excitable in sensing that perhaps something is being lost, or rather the ability to crack open, solder, hack and reprogram is lost (none of which they could or ever did actually do). So this is the loss of a perceived right to be able to do something to hardware which they can't do anyway.

    There is something interesting about this whole proprietorial discussion about having to 'own' the iPad – i.e. it means that the individual not only can do anything they want with it, but indeed *must* be able to else they don't 'own' it. In effect this is connecting some notion of freedom with a complete and total control and mastery of the object. An extremely instrumental and patriarchal notion of the relationship we should have with technology. It is also very libertarian and carries a lot of political baggage beneath its seeming correctness and obviousness. Just as technology begins to become invisible to us, it becomes more urgent that we are its masters.

  3. Is the picture at the top there me? :)

    "But no, Apple has decided that the consumer does not choose, they get what they get, and that’s it. True, it will work beautifully for the vast majority, but I do not want to be locked in an all-encompassing media store."

    Two points. First, in one sense the consumer – that's you and me and (because he doesn't code) Cory – doesn't "get to choose" in the sense you imply. You and I are at the mercies of what other people want to develop and distribute. Sure, you could (as Cory pointed out in a tweet to me) pay someone to create a bespoke app for you – but you can do that on the iPad and iPhone too (you can distribute up to 100 copies of any app via ad hoc distribution).

    And if you don't want to use iTunes to manage your music, you don't really have to – it takes some hackery, but it is possible, which is why Ubuntu 10.4 will apparently offer native, out of the box support for iPhone (and touch, and, I'll bet, now the iPad) – http://www.webupd8.org/2010/02/confirmed-ubuntu-1

    It's not like there's an infinite amount of programmes out there just waiting to be discovered. In fact, the iTunes/iPhone/iPod Touch ecosystem offers consumers more choice of application than any other mobile platform, period. In fact, one of the challenges iTunes faces is simply that there's almost too many apps to make choosing what to use easy.

    Second, you're not locked in to an "all-encompassing media store". Music? MP3, or AAC, not from iTunes. Video? MP4 and half a dozen other formats, DRM-free, not from iTunes. Books? ePub – including, of course lots and lots of DRM-free ones. I can even take a DRM-free ePub from my Sony Reader and put the same file on my iPad – something that I conspicuously *can't* do on a Kindle.

    I've argued before (http://www.technovia.co.uk/2010/02/is-it-time-for-apple-to-open-up-the-app-store-model.html) that ultimately Apple will have to open up the App Store model, both for commercial and anti-trust law reasons. The more successful iPhone OS devices become, the less sustainable a single store is. So that will happen, too.

    • Thanks Ian,

      No, the picture is not you, it is the collective pro-iPad Twitterverse :)

      Interesting points, and I agree that if I really, really want to, I can get around the built-in lock-ins. But that is the point, and I will vote with my wallet and wait until Apple decides to open up.

      As I've mentioned now for the 2nd time, the NotionInk's Adam seems to be the device for me. And it also has a camera :D

  4. I've just installed Ubuntu on a couple of Macs. That was my way to celebrate holy week. Now they are two lovely little lambs of freedom :)

    If you want me to remove the demons from yours, just let me know…

  5. I don't see why openness and usability are mutually exclusive. Try an Android device and you'll see – effortless to use, but endlessly customisable. It's not a fallacy to say that Apple's desire to lock users into a given set of uses, when they might have other ideas, is ludicrous when more open devices can have the beauty and intuitiveness of Apple products while providing the opportunity, *for those who want it*, to delve in deeper.

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