Why Geeks Hate the iPad


Alex Payne, an engineer at Twitter, explains why he’s “disturbed” by the iPad:

The thing that bothers me most about the iPad is this: if I had an iPad rather than a real computer as a kid, I’d never be a programmer today. I’d never have had the ability to run whatever stupid, potentially harmful, hugely educational programs I could download or write. I wouldn’t have been able to fire up ResEdit and edit out the Mac startup sound so I could tinker on the computer at all hours without waking my parents. The iPad may be a boon to traditional eduction, insofar as it allows for multimedia textbooks and such, but in its current form, it’s a detriment to the sort of hacker culture that has propelled the digital economy.

2320949433_30cb1c9c8cI think virtually every computer programmer has a story like this. Some of us started in grade school—I demoed a simple BASIC program I’d written for show-and-tell in the second grade. Others didn’t find their knack for programming until after the graduated from college. But in any case it was tremendously important that we could sit down at the computers we (or our parents) already owned and start screwing around with them. We didn’t have to order special unlocked developer computers, nor did we have to submit our programs to Apple before they’d run on our friends’ computers.

I think the difference in lived experience largely explains the sharply divergent reaction you see to this issue between programmers and non-programmers. For the general public, the openness of a digital gadget is an entirely abstract issue, like whether the product is environmentally friendly or was made in a sweatshop. But there’s nothing abstract about it for those of us who regularly open up a command line. Using a locked-down computer feels like using a pair of safety scissors. It isn’t just that it’s likely to be a less innovative platform in the abstract—though it is. It’s that it’s conspicuously lacking what we view as core functionality.

zipad340xNow, the obvious response is that Payne and I are not the target audience for the iPad, and we shouldn’t complain if Apple produces a product that works for everyone else. Which is fair enough—I certainly don’t want to stop Apple from making the kinds of products it wants to, or customers from buying the products they like. But it’s important to bear in mind that it’s in your interest to be using the same platform as the geeks, because (as Paul Graham has pointed out) we’re likely to come up with innovations that you’ll find useful. And we’ll probably share them with you—but only if we’re using the same platform.

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18 Responses to Why Geeks Hate the iPad

  1. Erich says:

    Tim, I like your blog, but I really feel like you’re protesting against the iPad too much. I’m a programmer and have been as long as I can remember — I used an Apple Lisa and was mucking with LISP when I was a teen. Why shouldn’t I, as a geek, want an iPad? If it helps me do things that I think are important, isn’t that enough? Not every computer needs to be tinkered with. It’s not like one can’t develop for the platform, though you seem to inexplicably be implying that.

    Has there been no innovation on the iPhone, which is just as closed?

    And “the same platform as the geeks?” I don’t know many joe users using *nix, unless you’re counting OSX users.

    We’ll see, anyway. I don’t know if I’ll get one, certainly not before the first revision.

  2. Erich,

    I’ve got an iPhone, and obviously it’s a tremendously innovative platform. It would clearly be wrong to argue that no innovation has happened on the iPhone; clearly a lot has. But as I’ve argued in previous posts, I do think that the long-run health of the iPhone platform is threatened by Apple’s restrictive app approval process.

    I view the iPad as worse because it’s closer to being a general-purpose computer than a special purpose device. As I wrote in my previous post, the restrictions on the iPhone can at least be justified on the grounds that they help ensure the reliability and stability of a device that has limited resources and that people expect to be rock-solid. And the iPhone, at the time it was introduced, was mostly competing with devices that were equally closed, so we weren’t losing much. In contrast, I think general-purpose computers should be open. They’re a lot more useful that way, as well as more conducive to innovation.

    And yes, I’m counting Mac OS X as a Unix platform. Today there are millions of geeks with MacBooks running OS X who never would have bought a PowerBook running OS 8 in 1998. I agree with Paul Graham that this has been, and will be, a huge boon to the platform.

  3. Rich says:

    Alex Payne has a similar article this morning here: http://al3x.net/2010/01/28/ipad.html

    There’s a metaphor to cars here, I think. Every one of our granddads could probably rebuild his engine on the fly. Only some of our dads could (though a fair number could do the simpler things, oil changes and so forth). Now, a vanishingly small fraction of us do anything at all under the hood. Let the computer chips and inscrutable “Dealer Service Shop” handle it, while we have cappuccino and ogle the 2011’s on the showroom floor.

    My granddad was an airline mechanic, and he’d be sorely disappointed with my combustion engine unfamiliarity if he were around today. But he also encouraged my grade-school computing, because he saw cockpits and cars getting smarter. So it goes…

  4. Rich says:

    I can’t believe I linked to the story you linked to. I’m a dope. I saw his story linked elsewhere (smarterware maybe?) and then when I replied here somehow I thought it was clever to mention Alex. DERP.

  5. Erich says:

    Tim, okay, but might the non-geek population expect their general purpose computing devices to be rock solid, unless perhaps they’re geeky enough to handle them if the devices are NOT rock solid?

  6. Sure, but it’s easy to make both populations happy: give the geeks an officially-supported way to bypass the app store if they want to, but turn this functionality off by default. So people who want a rock-solid computing experience can limit themselves to app store apps, while those who want to experiment can do so with the knowledge that they might be compromising reliability.

  7. Don Marti says:

    You had to make a pretty serious investment to get all the tools and documentation to do Macintosh development in the 1980s. Today, proprietary development programs are much cheaper and easier to join–probably thanks to the competition from the Free Software option. The iPhone developer program is $99.

    These kids today have it easy.

  8. Arps says:

    Tim, sounds like you’re making the same complaint Jonathan Zittrain made in The Future of the Internet. Zittrain argued, in part, that it’s bad when “generative” devices give way to “sterile” and “tethered” ones.

    I think Zittrain’s thesis is misplaced. In computing, innovation can happen at many levels of abstraction. True, the iPad might thwart innovation at a low level of innovation. However, the iPad might foster innovation at higher level of abstraction.

  9. Jed Harris says:

    People using the iPhone and I’m sure the iPad do have access to a programming environment — quite a rich one. The language is JavaScript (much better than Basic which was the typical gateway language on early consumer machines), it has a lot of runtime support (all the browser functionality), it is easy to find and share examples, etc.

    Anyone who’s worried about this should create a seductive set of web pages to lead vulnerable youngsters into the world of software development.

    Admittedly, the iPad doesn’t lend itself to low-level experimentation (C, hardware, etc.), and doesn’t provide an on-ramp to Unix-style OS skills, etc. But if someone grows beyond the browser environment they can get a laptop that runs Linux for a few hundred dollars, or likely for free as a hand-me-down.

  10. Arps, I’m agreeing with Zittrain’s defense of generativity, but I agree with you that his doomsaying is overblown.

    Don and Jed: totally agree.

  11. Red says:

    I have worked with Apple since the late 70’s. I found porting software to the Lisa to be reasonalby easy. I gave up porting to a Mac. Today I am working on modles and ebedded stuff so I can use off the rack programs for the Mackitosh side of things and C, BASH scripts, etc for most work and JAVA, HTML, Termianl & OS X progams for the human interface. Should I need something that used an incroperated human interface I will get someone that good it it to help me.

    I was really exciited when the iPhone came out. Only to have my exubrance dashed by Apple not allowing any I/O other than their “APPROVED interfaces”, no hooks to the cron deamon or any way to make their incatation of Unix useful for anything outside their appoved methods.

    I could understand limiting the power of Unix box hard wired to cell phone but that dog won’t hunt for the iPad. Here is a 1 GHz RISC processor with as much as 64 gigabytes of SRAM doing little morn than good programer can on the flat side of Intel 386. A 386 won’t run Apples bloated verson of C but, I expect it runs Unix and ANSI C like mad just like all its outher proucduts.

    As long as Apple only sees the guy or gal the buys stuff at the Apple Store or iTunes as their market they leave a really big hole for competition to walk though. The eclusivity of iTunes will be fleeting. The EU aniti trust won’t allow that very long. Google has more experience with making deals for copyrights than anyone and they like that market too.

    While Apple’s tight control of their user interface has become so ingrained in the Mac user they demand it. The new Mac user like me is not so loyal or so willing to accept the dictates of the mother ship.

    Damn few programers come from the retail user world. We use computers to fill a need. If we can buy software to do what wes want it is a wast of time to wtrite software to do it. Programmers come from people that have problems they can’t get software to do. From what I seen of the limits on he iPad I will find a friendlier hardware supplier

    . I won’t make the same mistake twice. I was very disappointed that Apple sold a Unix computer with a ?GPS, camera, Blue Toot, WiFi, Cell phone, running a 300 MHz ARM processor with no way to hook up a keyboard, get to the command line, no access to cron & on & … on. JailBreak will get me in but there is no real market software I write that way. This time I will look for Linux look alike for the iPad and port and software that looks good back to iPad it will work in the box Apple apple allows at the time.

    All I can say is APPLE doesn’t suck as bad as Microsoft. At least when my Mac locks up I don’t loose more than a few seconds of work in BBEdit and the Time Machine seem to work. I can also run several combinations of Unix, Linux0, Linux1. Linux2, Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 98 and OS X at the same time. Running Unix the Mac is also a lot faster on big data sets with some combintion of OS X, Windows and Linux all working on the same data.


  12. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  13. Ken Fager says:

    First off, thanks for using my Apple IIe photo in your article. Yay Creative Commons!

    Read on my iPad.

  14. spookie says:

    Red, apparently the spell checker is too advanced for you? Your post was VERY difficult to read due to the huge number of typos.

    You may want to access the terminal from a media consumption device, but I sure don’t. If I need the terminal, I need a COMPUTER, not a media device. As to the development of apps that are for jailbroken devices, you suggest there isn’t a market. It that so? Cydia has a pretty good number of users, and you KNOW a good number of people are jailbreaking–WOZ jailbroke an iPhone ON TV, for the gods’ sakes, after first chiding Kathy Griffin that “Some people would criticise you for not having hacked it.” He then hacked the phone using the online tool, AppSnap. He’s been photographed using other hacked iPhones as well. SO quit whining. You CAN develop for the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch if you want to, either with the economically-priced SDK and the App Store approval process, or through the many sites selling apps for jailbroken iPhones, like Cydia.

  15. Adam says:

    I understand your view Tim.
    I get the reason iPad is popular and it’s just something that fits in with the times.
    Personally, I see iPads (and other gadget driven software) as something that satisfies an audience that wants things fast and cares less about how things work. Being programmers, we will be more intersted in the “How” rather than the “Wow” of things.

    I’m probably going to go off on a few tangents here so apologies in advance.

    Ok, so…. I won’t ever get an iPad for one very simple reason. I don’t need to.
    I have a PC for programming and doing digital design, an xbox for games and a huge cinema system for movies and music. All of those things I do from my own home. An iPad would satisfy none of them. At home, why would I hold an iPod when I can chill out on my sofa and do the same things, but in a more comfy and practical way?

    To me, having an iPad makes no sense and would be just a huge waste of money. Yes, it means I can still do things on the go, but that really means that I’d have my head down in a screen even though I’m out and should be socialising with my friends. If I took an iPad out with me then (to me) it’s a sign of my ignorance towards the friends I’ve come out to meet. Why would I still need my online connection if I’m suppose to be out with my friends? I guess my way of thinking is related to my age and my understanding of how life was before the Internet boom.

    It’s why I also notice other things now as I travel….iPods (and other music devices).
    More and more people walking around with their earphones on, completely oblivious to anyone around them. It’s a sign (in my opinion) that people are so content with their virtual online worlds that meeting or interacting with real physical people has become more difficult and ‘strange’. They have no need to try, so they stay in their own world even when they are out.

    But it doesn’t mean the iPad won’t satisfy everyone else. If you don’t do design work, don’t need to type lots (sitting in a comfortable position), you don’t mind watching movies on a tiny screen and you just like browsing the net for Facebook and Flickr (and similar sites), then an iPod is going to be the most amazing thing in the world to you. It’s a great versatile toy and it’s many many toys all in one.

    Cool or Tool?
    At the end of the day, the iPad will be bought as a cool tool, even if it’s not bought as a means of satisfying a genuine need. The next gen of teen/young adults has discovered that it’s not only Rebook trainers, Lynx and having a photo of yourself looking up at the camera, that makes you cool. iPods can make you cool too because TV said so.

    In my day we were cool because we had Yo-Yos!

    Adam 🙂


    As an aside, if you’ve not seen a movie yet called Idiocracy, I would recommend watching it. Yes, it’s completely daft BUT I believe it paints a quite believable future, at least as far as how people will become dependant on technology, hand holding and buttons. It also covers the interesting idea that fewer and fewer people will exist with a high level of intelligence but those who are, drive the technology that everyone else depends on! 🙂

  16. Kc says:

    I still have my apple ][ as well, I bring it back out every once and awhile to program on. I do miss basic’s format and wish that Apple wouldn’t put me in jail just for wanting to do what I did as a kid again. Remember logo and such? Now it seems the game has changed. I’m tempted just to throw up basic on my so called ipad just to recapture those apple memories.

  17. Anonymous says:

    If you miss BASIC, get a Linux computer and find and download qb2c, a QBASIC to C converter. Not perfect, but pretty decent, plus you can mess with the C code before compiling.

    Why I won’t buy Apple junk is multiple reasons.

    1: It’s too locked down, hence it needs to be jailbroken. You can only do what the late Steve Jobs allows, like iTunes, or sorry, you can’t back it up. (so you pay all over for songs when the thing dies)

    2: Sorry, you can’t upgrade anything. It’s literally WYSIWYG. (see above!)

    3: Batteries do wear out. And you cannot replace it. I guess Steve Jobs was so rich that if his car’s battery died he just scrapped the car and took a cab to the nearest dealership and pull out his Visa Plutonium-239 card and buy a new Bentley. He must figure that people have money to waste like he did.

    Poetic justice: He died because his liver was like the battery in his iEverything. Without him having put one drink on it.

  18. Chank says:

    You have succinctly mirrored my own feelings about the ipad. But hacking wont be the only casualty to the tablet “revolution”.

    ANY creative endeavor is severelyis going to be hampered if not completely eliminated on tablets. From digital painters who will never have the power of photoshop or a wacom-stylus tablet, to people interested in music who will be stuck with watered down, playskoolized apple approved toys instead of the possibility of pirating a real DAW. People will think typing at 15wpm with tons of spelling errors is ok, and who really writes anyway when you can just spend your time watching g Netflix?

    It reverses the democratizing trend that the Internet and desktop PCs helped foster, and threatens culture.

    Disclaimer: I wrote this, with much trouble at probably a third my usual pace and probably not a few un-caught errors…. On an iPhone.

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