February 7, 2010


Filed under: digital,future,interfaces,toys,Uncategorized,want — mhoye @ 10:54 am

The Lip

Have you noticed that when some Person A endorses some notion they can’t really articulate, and person B enthusiastically supports that half-formed idea with arguments they really haven’t thought through, both of them will inevitably say that the other person “gets it”?

So about that iPad.

I appear to be in the minority of my nerd colleagues when I say that I covet this new iPad widget. It may just be the reflexive Shiny Technology Acquisition Reflex we nerds suffer from, but can I justify it by saying that I don’t want one for the same reason other people do? Let’s find out.

This is a difficult position, because a number of the people I know who’ve declared the iPad a waste of time are highly technical people I quite respect, and unfortunately a number of those most vocally in favor of it are idiots. To be clear I don’t think the world is divided into those two categories; it’s just that apropos the iPad, there’s this bright line cut down the middle of my newsfeed aggregator.

So, let me enumerate a few points, just to clarify my position. The iPad is a number of quite polarizing things, and among them are:

  1. A device with a hypermodern, visually minimalist UI that marginalizes or discards thirty years of convention in favor of doing its own thing.
  2. A physical artefact which, in terms of both its form and interactivity, is by the standards of modern computery things shockingly elegant.
  3. A portable device with (apparently) virtually zero physical extensibility. Modulo the docking station & keyboard, it’s basically atomic. Relatedly, it is also
  4. A computer that’s very nearly impenetrable as far as software exposure or modification goes, even from with within the system itself; it is designed (well) and implemented (well) to completely obscure the implementation details within the system. The details of the technology inside it are as close to invisible and unexaminable as they can be made to be.
  5. Another conduit to Apple’s App Store, which via iTunes (again, this is not confirmed but is extremely likely) is expected to be the only way to get software onto the device at all. Software that Apple has not preapproved will simply not be available.

I’ve tried, and somewhat failed, to keep my phrasing relatively neutral there but these are the salient facts.

On the first point, I am wholly in favor. These aspects of the iPad, including jettisoning old UI ideas, experimenting with new interfaces, multitouch, minimalism, and the push towards the style of application that this sort of experimental UI canvas lets the industry take, they’re great. It’s really a shame that nobody else in the industry is willing to make these kind of big pushes forward. And maybe more importantly, nobody else is so merciless about throwing stuff overboard once it’s outlived its usefulness.

I think there’s a certain blindness on the part of the technically inclined to the elegance of invisibility, though it’s completely understandable; when the implementation details disappear it becomes difficult or impossible for us to pursue our jobs or hobbies, because our jobs are the technical details. When they disappear and, worse, when they disappear and that seems to actually work right we get skittish indeed.

“The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.” – Douglas Adams

I think technology whenever possible should be at least translucent, at best invisible. Not everyone thinks so, and some days I agree with them; my fellow nerds have had the same bad days I’ve had when somebody’s tried to hide some implementation details and then gone and fucked it up anyway. It’s no fun at all having to get out from under that sort of thing, and we’ve all been burned by it at some point. But for most people, most of the time, that’s a huge feature, not a bug at all.

Physically it is clearly beautiful, in that brushed-aluminum zen way that’s become Jonathan Ive‘s signature fit-and-finishing move. I wish somebody else would start making hardware that is even fractionally able to compete in this space, but alas.

I’m going to digress for a moment here, about two things: grandparents and open systems.

Digression the first: to every tech writer who feels like pointing out how some technology is not for geeks, but for somebody’s hypothetical grandmother: Maya’s grandmother shows her friends videos of her granddaughter learning to crawl on her iTouch. You, on the other hand, are using dated, decades-old tropes to fluff out crappy writing; you are a lazy slob of a writer using a stereotype as a crutch. Honestly, the only person hanging on to crusty old tools here is you.

Digression the second, in an article on (gag) LifeHacker about the the problems with the iPad, Adam Pash writes:

“To say that “either a device is user friendly or it’s open” is a false dichotomy.”

Ignoring that Pash’s abysmal idea of “openness” is “includes a terminal app and shows you the filesystem”, you’d think that would be true. But shit, guys, prove it! Show us! Ship something that isn’t some bullshit one-off debian/busybox recompile in a crappy plastic box with a half-assed one-off UI and a bunch of proprietary goop on top of it! Because as far as I can tell, Apple is the only company that is successful at both shipping their own hardware and treating usability as something deeper than a coat of spraypaint.

That little rant lets me segue back into the last three points, being very much related. And I’m very ambivalent about them. For a user to install arbitrary hardware means the user needs to be able to install arbitrary drivers, and I’m betting the #1 reason, above even it’s driven minimalism, that the iPad’s hardware is so thoroughly closed is so that the software can stay just as closed. (Dispute that if you like, but take a moment to divide the number of different ways you can extend the functionality of an iPod Touch via the dock or Bluetooth by the number of things you can plug into a MacBook’s USB port; not quite zero, but awfully close.)

I can, I have to say, kind of understand that. Between denying arbitrary third-party drivers and killing Flash, Apple has certainly done great things for the stability and manageability of the iPhoneOS product lines.

But to customers and developers alike, there’s this huge, huge downside. This is arguably the most pernicious elements of the App Store and its approval process, and more generally of Apple’s having complete control over the platform; that nobody can sell you, or even just give you for free, anything that Apple finds inconvenient. That’s why you can’t hook a bluetooth keyboard up to an iPhone, for example, and why you can’t use Firefox or Chrome on it. Mobile Safari might suck, but there’s nothing you can do about it and no way to vote with your feet. “Duplicating existing functionality”, even if the existing functionality sucks and the new idea is better, is out of the question.

And for developers it’s worse. Users just can’t buy the product; developers can’t get back the months of their lives they spent creating it, should they end up butting heads against the perniciously arbitrary App Store approval process. And worse, I’ve heard rumors (just rumors, but serious rumors from serious people) that a careful reading of the App Store developer agreements might imply that Apple actually owns the software you sell through the App Store. Certainly the fact you’re prohibited, under NDA, from even publishing why your apps have been rejected (and, in some high profile cases, it wouldn’t matter if you do because Apple will just lie about it anyway) should be a deal breaker. But with everyone busily keeping their eyes on this Scrooge-McDuck-style bathtub of money, who has time to fret about little things like digital freedoms, competitive marketplaces, conflicts of interest, or actually owning things you’ve paid for?

The App Store business model is classic robber-barony for this shiny new digital age, in short. Sadly, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to be unable to design their way out of a wet cardboard box and ship a competing product.

Did I say that I still want an iPad? Yeah, I’ve been wavering about that.

But the rest of the portable-device field right now is so very, very thin. Nobody else seems like they’re able to pull all these disparate parts (hardware, software, online services, service and marketing, etc…) together in any way that is getting any kind of traction. Despite RIM’s market share, nobody gives a shit about RIM’s store, for example. It’s worth mentioning the context in which the iPad and the App Store exist, which appears to be this huge gaping void in the market that they can pour a basically unlimited number of devices into. Their only reasonable competitor in this space, Google, only just decided to turn on multitouch support on their Android phones a few days ago, and hasn’t yet shipped their presumed future minicomputer based on ChromeOS.

Digressions three and four, here: Boy, ChromeOS (and, indeed, Android) has a rocky future ahead of it. Just recently, Google pulled out their increasingly dog-eared copy of the Classic Microsoft playbook and started putting the screws to their Android clients in a move seasoned veterans of the Microsoft desktop space will find immediately familiar. “We have no intention of developing a competing product. Please, use our OS. Go right ahead, we have no intention of developing a competing product. None. Did I mention we’re not going to sell a phone? Use Android, love Android, let us help you use Android and love Android. Invest heavily in Android. Oh, you did? Great! Check out the new Google Phone! Isn’t it awesome?”

Good luck finding people to work with you on ChromeOS, Google!

The final digression: have I mentioned how consistently shocked I am that Microsoft is completely irrelevant in the portable space? Their mobile OS team has been fucking the dog for at least five years now, and thanks to a CEO who’s got the strategic vision of a stop sign in a parking lot they now have at least three separate mobile strategies that might be conflicting if anyone knew what the hell any of them were doing. It’s really stunning. I mean, honestly guys, “Surface”? You took all those great ideas and decided to make furniture? I can remember companies being afraid to compete with Microsoft. Now, not so much.

And finally, there are some odd hiccups to the iPad launch that I don’t quite understand. And they really didn’t sell the product at the public demo. Unless you looked only at the physical interface part of it, that was a crappy keynote, and the haste with which people like John Gruber have fired up their sneers and leapt snidely to Apple’s defence has read an awful lot more like Stockholm Syndrome than regular old Reality Distortion this time around.

Still, people who’ve actually held one seem to think they’re great. But none of those people will be developers; as far as I can tell, no developers will have actually tested their apps on a real iPad on launch day, because Apple isn’t seeding developers with them at all. And you can expect one, maybe two more major announcements about the iPad before it’s released, possibly with respect to the hardware but likely with with regards to ebooks available through iTunes. So I won’t be picking one up on the first day, but I’ll be paying close attention to it; it will be interesting to see what 3G options in Canada look like.

Which is all to say, right now it looks to me like the iPad is going to be an excellent second computer, maybe the best out there even for people who do some heavy lifting on their primary. Because despite the evils of the App Store, it is just mind-blowingly convenient, a hugely better purchase-through-install experience than anyone else offers. And as far as I can tell, there’s no way I can vote with my dollars for better interfaces, experimental new UIs and more elegant hardware, without also voting for the App Store and all of it’s baggage, but I’m willing to be disciplined about keeping my data backed up and in open formats, and until Nokia buys Palm and ships something they can both be proud of, that will have to be enough.


  1. There is one main reason that I kinda want an iPad, despite all the concerns you and others have raised: It actually seems to fill a need that I have. I want to be able to sit on the couch and do some basic browsing activities while watching TV.

    Using a clamshell laptop (which is actually a misnomer, because it’s really annoying to use a laptop on your lap) while sitting on the couch is quite cumbersome. Having a tablet with the features that Apple unveiled, not the the least of which being the on-screen keyboard or the ability to quickly switch between portrait and landscape mode, can be quite convenient for casual use during commercials.

    Comment by Gordon P. Hemsley — February 7, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

  2. As far as polarizing things the iPad is, I think the other one is the actual physicality of the device itself — a large-sized slate with no sensible method of text input. This is the part that keeps me convinced it’s a niche product. And I can’t help but note that the people who are most enthusiastic about the tablet form factor are those who are familiar with phones but haven’t necessarily used large tablets.

    They’re qualitatively different experiences, and I just don’t think the big tablet experience is going to be as appealing long-term as people think it will, elegant UI or no. Apple actually did a good job of massaging that demo so the tablet form factor didn’t seem so cumbersome, but most people don’t sit on their couch with their legs crossed so perfectly for long periods at a time. And once your legs aren’t crossed just right, you’re now left either awkwardly holding vertical a (1.5 lb) device, or letting it lie flat and hunching forward awkwardly — and never mind the awkwardness of typing on it, which even Gruber allows is awful.

    I’ve been sitting in bed today surfing the web and reading comic books on my convertible tablet, and while I do love the adjustability of the form factor, I note that I’ve had it in regular laptop mode about 40% of the time, reverse laptop mode (i.e., with the screen facing the rear of the laptop so it’s closer to me) 40% of the time, and in actual tablet mode only about 20% of the time. Adjustably angled devices just work better ergonomically, and when typing is needed, there’s just no question about how superior keyboards are to everything else in the world.

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — February 7, 2010 @ 1:33 pm

  3. the funny part about touch keyboards is that everyone forgets that it worked for data and wesley.

    maybe we just need lcars.

    Comment by kev — February 7, 2010 @ 3:09 pm

  4. It does seem to be a polarizing device, doesn’t it? Most of the people in my office are haters. I’m not one, but I’m not planning to buy. It’s kind of lame, maybe, but the issue for me is Flash. I know, I know, there may be good reasons Apple banned it, but it’s a problem for me. Fact is, I just want to sit down on my couch and play Bloons Tower Defense. When I get home from work I turn into a technical simpleton, and I want my fucking flash game. That’s the whole argument. I’m so sold on the tablet concept if I can just do that.

    (A camera would have been nice too, though it’s not a deal breaker. My D&D group has been known to web conference in a regular player who moved out of state, and a laptop is overkill for it. Give me flash and my friend in Ohio and I will get my credit card out tonight.)

    Comment by Ian Hurst — February 8, 2010 @ 9:57 pm

  5. I think the thing that’s going to make my mind up one way or another is going to be the ergonomics of it. I’m curious as to how prolonged usage works, but on the other hand, this isn’t really a prolonged use device, but if it isn’t, do I want one?

    Comment by mhoye — February 9, 2010 @ 8:11 am

  6. As for flash games – they’re on the way out, man. It’s going to be all HTML5/Canvas soon, we’re just in that awkward transition phase.

    Comment by mhoye — February 9, 2010 @ 8:12 am

  7. Ian Hurst: Even if it had Flash, I’m skeptical about how well most games would work, since you only have touch on the iPad. It’s easy to think that touch and the mouse are basically the same, but in a game context, that’s not necessarily the case. I mean, at the most extreme, think about how it’d work to control a mouse-using FPS with touch — not at all, really. (And do Flash games often use the keyboard?)

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — February 9, 2010 @ 9:55 am

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