iPad freedom train

2 minute read

After last week’s unveiling of Apple’s iPad, there has been a quiet current of dismay by people looking for a not-yet piece of hardware. I have some sympathy for the perspective of Mark Pilgrim, in his piece, “Tinkerer’s Sunset”. It begins:

When DVD Jon was arrested after breaking the CSS encryption algorithm, he was charged with unauthorized computer trespassing. That led his lawyers to ask the obvious question, On whose computer did he trespass? The prosecutors answer: his own. If that doesnt make your heart skip a beat, you can stop reading now.

Pilgrim goes on to describe a personal history of programming, starting as a kid on the Apple ][e – a history that basically mirrors my own experiences learning to code. He contrasts this history with the recent trend – in the iPhone, iPod Touch and now iPad – to exert more control over the programs that can run on these Apple platforms. Can Pilgrim’s kids expect to learn programming with the freely accessible tools that used to exist on every computer?

Well, I’m not as reticent about the iPad development system. For one thing, the entire development kit is available, it’s just not free. I don’t see how this is really any different than paying for the Pascal compiler I used on the Apple IIgs in 1987, or paying for Microsoft BASIC on the PC. For another thing, today’s Macs all come with the Xcode tools free and Python preinstalled. Python is a darned sight better to learn programming than BASIC was, and you can run Python scripts on the iPhone, and presumably the iPad too.

The real concern here is between “cheap” and “cool”. The iPad looks like it will be cool; meaning a kid can get lots of nerd cred by doing magical tricks with it. Now, the same kid could use a $150 desktop with Ubuntu and open source compilers to program magical tricks. That would leave $450 left in his pocket, that he saved by not buying the iPad and developer kit. He could use that to pay for three years of hosting his magical trick, or two years with a modest Google ad.

I get that the Ubuntu box isn’t as cool. And that many kids are a lot more likely to get a little time on a parent’s cool tablet than to get their own $150 box. But does it make sense to say that a new product restricts freedom, when we live in a world now that lacks the product entirely? I’d say it adds a certain kind of freedom, for users who want it, and fails to add others.

Anyway, for a less nuanced critique, I’ll link to “iPad Snivelers: Put Up or Shut Up”

The iPad isn't a threat to anything except the success of inferior products. And if anything's dystopian about the future it portends, it's an American copyright system that's been out of whack since 1996.

I’m not sure that’s true. The rapid pace of hardware evolution means that software is for all intents and purposes useless after fifteen or twenty years. There might be something in Windows 3.0 or Mac System 7 that would be useful today, but probably not in comparison to open source alternatives. In the software sense it doesn’t matter if copyrights expire in 17 years or 95, unless you’re a modder who wants to make an iPhone version of old Nintendo ROMs.