Does anyone else get weepy on long haul flights? I’m currently on a Virgin America flight (hello gogo wi-fi, hello deucing my carbon credits for another decade), watching a House marathon (which is protecting me somewhat from emotional liability), but I still get a little tearful after the fifth hour. Maybe it’s oxygen dep, maybe it’s sheer boredom, maybe it’s NOT JUST ME. One time I burst into tears at an inflight showing of Mission to Mars. I hope it’s not just me.
Anyway, it means I have time for you. I have a little less time for Virgin’s chairback entertainment system. Watching the Linux boot-up errors scroll back used to give me a wriggle of delight, but now the wonder of that has worn off, it’s just constantly irritating. There’s latency issues, especially with fast-forwarding in movies, which is like trying to tap-dance on black ice. There’s pages full of “this service isn’t ready yet”, terrible anti-aliasing on the branding. Oh, and my main credit card doesn’t work on purchases, coming up with a “Credit values of $9999 not allowed” error. The same card gives the same error on my neighbour’s machine. Another card that has a variant of my name works fine. My main credit card has an apostrophe in the surname. I do hope Little Bobby Tables doesn’t take a flight on VIrgin any time soon.
Here’s the question that is gripping plenty of my friends in fear tonight. Do open systems inevitably suck at UI, compared to closed systems run by control freaks? Will the iPad (sorry, that is “iPad”) mean our children will not code, and Stallman will die alone, the last free programmer strangled with the DRMed guts of the last Macmillan author?
I think the guilt is exacerbated by all of our concerned essays being interleaved by admissions that we, too, will be getting one. It’s like a “Just Say No” ad recorded by people conspicuously tapping their upper arms.
But, you know, I’m optimistic. I’ve had these chills before. The first time, actually, was Windows 3.1, back when I was six or something. Okay, twenty-one. Windows was amazing, and unprogrammable to anyone who didn’t have a proper programming job, and thus couldn’t justify the expense of the dev environment, the Petzold, and the fancy 486 to run it all on. To people accustomed to working with a $50 copy of Turbo Pascal and a 80×25 Hercules card, this was a horror show. In the space between DOS’s QBASIC and Visual Basic, the Windows platform was closed to amateurs.
As was the Mac, compared to the Apple II ecosystem. I remember in 1992, in a run-down London flat, having somehow managed to beg a Mac from a local dealer, sitting and dolefully staring at it because outside of playing MacWrite and admiring the screen resolution, there was damn all you could do with it.
As for the risks to interactivity and creativity: I remember when the WebTV was announced, and we huddled in corners and worried for the future of the Internet. Unlike Windows and the Mac, the WebTV may well have died because it sucked: but I notice that it has no descendants on the technology family tree. No-one makes a web browser at arm’s length, for watching. Even the supposedly sealed iPad sits close enough to our laps for us want to make something, even if it’s just finger paintings.
Of course, the iPad (sorry, just “iPad”) is different because of the lockdown. Even if we had the resources to write something for it, we can’t without Apple’s whim. But I remain confident that the same forces that wash away proprietariness in general purpose computers in the past will eat away at the iPad. Maybe it will be like Windows, where the system itself becomes more open just by virtue of a disinterest in its owners in keeping it closed. My own, perhaps overgenerous feeling is the App Store is not an artifact of Jobs’ control-freak mentality, but a paranoid reaction to iPhone OS’s lack of decent sandboxing; that paranoia may be whittled away slowly.
Or it could be like the Mac, which became more open out of competition with more other open systems. Closed costs money to maintain, and open has more features. It may be that the iPad gives up its closed nature when faced with competitors that take its lead, and run faster and more alluringly than even Apple can keep up with. That seems less likely, to me: Apple knows its strengths, and the open world is so far struggling to emulate its aesthetic integrity and hardware integration. Closed costs money, but also lets Apple create new revenue streams for it and its partners. Open has more features, so Apple concentrates and creating a few features very well. Well, shrug: we have competition. That’s good. It’s not like the other proprietary behemoths are doing a good job mimicking Apple either.
Or it could be that we have to become outlaws. The problem with a closed system in our post-DMCA world is not that it exists, but that it’s a criminal act to open it. Some prosecutors claim it’s a criminal act to even talk about how how to open it. It’s certain criminal to sell other people ways to open it.
Despite that, open is still so important than thousands of people do it to their iPhones. Millions of people buy Android systems in preference to iPhone partly because of that power. And if the iPad is successful, surely millions will either jailbreak them, or buy open alternatives out of a wish to reach for something that Apple isn’t offering them.
It’s easy to see the iPad as the final tragedy in a long history of openness and tinkerability in general purpose computing. But the truth is, the cyclical fight against locked-in systems has been the recurring theme of computing since the mainframes. Our open systems are as wonderful as they are because they had to set themselves up against the shiny proprietary wonders of a previous age. The iPad isn’t a threat; it’s an inspiration. They’re always trying to steal the revolution; we always have to steal it back.