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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



jet plane emotions; ipad cycles

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.

18 Responses to “jet plane emotions; ipad cycles”

  1. Danny O'Brien Says:

    Oh, and one more thing: Steven Frank’s piece ends with this line:

    How long will it take to complete this Old World to New World shift? My guess? The end is near when you can bootstrap a new iPad application on an iPad.

    And that, to me, is the point where you can write your own software on it, which is the point of a general purpose computer, and the end of my concerns about a proprietary system. I know, I know, what we really want is open all the way down: but on a closed system, be it Intel/BIOS hardware or a Chumby, what you really need is for open software, at some level to be on a level playing field with closed. That’s good enough for me, and good enough for the exploring generation of new hackers. At that point the New World bootstraps its own Old World hackers, and the cycle begins again.

  2. Finn Says:

    Hi Danny —

    I’ve always enjoyed your writing; just wanted to mention that I too have wondered for years where the emotional intensity comes from on planes. I’m a very affectively cool person, but on a flight longer than three hours or so I will start weeping at the end of, I dunno, *The Proposal*, which I have glancing at occasionally without sound during the flight. And I will cry at the end *again*, as it unspools silently on a tiny screen, on the return flight.

    It’s doubly odd because the feelings are so intense, so short-lived, and so particularly melodramatic. I don’t have big mood swings into rage or elation or depression. Just melodramatic tears. Oxygen dep? Some deep autonomic reaction to the post-evolutionary weirdness of being high in the air? Early symptoms of deep vein thrombosis? … Someone needs to do a study about this.

  3. Sumana Harihareswara Says:

    I also react more to drama or comedy on planes. Not just you.

  4. Douwe Osinga Says:

    For me it was not just with win3.1. The same the first time I got my hands on an actual PC. On my BBC Micro I had all the tools to write a program, now I need to buy turbo pascal? Or that open web people keep going on about. In order to do something I need a webserver, static ip and a reliable internet connection, none of which were given in the early days. (I also get strangely weepy after too many movies or possibly gin & tonics)

  5. Andrew Ducker Says:

    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.
    I think you do Microsoft a disservice here – have you forgotten Steve Balmer’s chant of “Developers! Developers! Developers!” – Microsoft knows that it’s dominance comes from the software ecosystem, and it’s spent a large amount of cash trying to make software for Windows easier and easier to write. Admittedly, it took until 1998 until it got Visual Basic available, so that anyone could create Windows apps, but it’s kept improving the tools for writing UIs since then, and it currently makes Visual Studio Express available for free, so that people can code in VB, C# or C++.

  6. Matt Jones Says:

    My sotto-voce reaction to the ‘our kids won’t program’ hysteria the iPad has caused amongst the bearded-classes is mainly ‘um, they probably don’t already’ – how is the ‘closedness’ of games consoles any different? It’s a general purpose computer that powers an entertainment device! we’ve had those for quite a few years.

    “All these games on floopy discs will stop people typing in ‘monster maze’ programs from C&VG!!! It’s a disaster!!!”

    Also – how about fessing up to how bloody complex and obfuscated they’ve made the webs? “our kids won’t ‘view-source’!!” AlsoAlso – as you kind of point out – these things work on different scales, different cycles. Closed, beautiful hand-turned chairs are made out of growing, wild wooly open forests. Or something.


    I have the same malady as you on planes. I weep at the drop of a hat at in-flight movies, and was convinced that “Looney Tunes” with Brendan Fraser was a magical-realist work equivalent of Eco. This phenomenon needs to be explored.

  7. Andrew Walkingshaw Says:

    It’s not really different, but the ‘bearded classes’ (as you call ’em) grew up on six hours of Apple a day, and seeing this hurts; they’re seeing their own youth disappear. ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the byte.’

    I reckon that’s what’s driving some of it, deep down. A contributory factor.

  8. Craig Hughes Says:

    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.

    …and here’s me thinking that it’s because Apple is making a shit-ton of cash from acting as the monopoly distributor of apps. 10-K shows they made about $4billion selling software (not including music & movies) on the iPhone last year.

  9. Craig Hughes Says:

    Millions of people buy Android systems in preference to iPhone partly because of that power.

    That’s a HUGE stretch. I think most of the people who buy Android phones have no fricking clue which is more open. Probably a good 50% go for one over the other because it’s shinier under the lights at the cellphone store. Of the remaining 50%, 99% go for the one that they think will be cheaper.

  10. Craig Hughes Says:

    Also, on the main topic, IMO the drive to tinker is INCREASED the more the system you’re tinkering with is locked down. The incentives are just higher and the intellectual satisfaction from breaking it then putting it back together is that much more gratifying.

  11. Matt Petty Says:

    Weepy on planes? I sat through ‘K-PAX’ followed by ‘A.I.’ on one flight, both of which had me openly sobbing. ‘A.I.’ still gets me every time.

    I was very interested in the run up to the iPad, and talking about it so that my girlfriend asked, “So you’ll be getting one then?”

    “Oh no I don’t want to be locked down like that. (Also I can’t afford it)”

  12. danny Says:

    Craig – yes, you’re right on the $$$. But would Apple lose money if the platform was more open? It’s not as if there’s another way to pay for applications outside of the app store, and even if there was, the chances are most people would still buy from it. I think the success of the app store was an accident. I don’t think people directly buy Android phones because they’re more open, I think they buy them because they come from a bunch of producers who aren’t apple, at different shapes and sizes, and that comes about because Android is open. Finally, there’s the intellectual satisfaction of “cracking” HTML by hundreds of thousands of people, and then there’s fun for Bunnie Huang and the twenty or so people who work out how to crack an Xbox, so I don’t think a closed system is that much of an inspiration.

  13. Alan Connor Says:

    I am going to use two definite articles. “The the iPad”. The non-parenthetical stuff was good, too.

  14. Coburn Says:

    I tend to treat those hours on a plane as “what happens in vegas, stays…” time. There is some altered reality effect that happens that would make say “August Rush” the most amazing film ever in the history of the world. Upon running home and talking up the movie to girlfriend, followed by a rental, it’s discovered that “August Rush” is contextually good (context being the 5th hour of a flight) but non-contextually is crap.

  15. Francis Hwang Says:

    “When it comes to movie consumption, there’s no truer democrat in America than the slightly inebriated airline passenger. You’ve observed it, I’m sure—how at a certain altitude, and after a certain number of Bloody Marys, every prejudice of class and gender begins to be dissolved; how in that strange and hurtling passivity the grandmother in the aisle seat will submit with a kind of rapture to The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, while the tattooed young man by the window gratefully dabs his eyes at the last frames of 27 Dresses.”

    James Parker writes it off to boredom and in-flight alcohol, but I suspect there’s a bit more: Airplane time can be a solitary, contemplative time. Part of me actually pines for the days when there were way fewer in-flight distractions, including my beloved laptop. I used to get a lot more thinking done on planes.

  16. Marc K Says:

    So is the iPad really a general purpose computer? Maybe Apple is moving it that way but I think it’s really a media consumption device not much different than TV and radio were. Yes a few people hacked around on those devices but in general we broke the devices that weren’t the ones we relied on for new and weather. Usually old tired devices or ones custom made for such hacking or we just built them our selves. I really see the iPad as more like a hardware web browser that has some other fun functions but I don’t see it like my desktop or laptop. Finally a device I can actually use in the bathroom to read. And when V2 comes out V1 can go in the magazine rack in the WC.

    Things like the iPad are more relevant to the creative people that make content, web, music, video etc. Sure there are issues around the file formats of that content but that doesn’t stop the them from creating and these new devices make their content more accessible.

    On the bright side things like iPhones are helping us escape Flash file formats and move to more open HTML formats. Getting Apple to use other open file types like ogg, that’s where the criticism should be leveled.

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