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Standing at the Crossroads

A while back I wrote Conflicts in my Mental Model of Objective-C, in which I listed a few small scale dichotomies or cognitive dissonances that plagued my notion of my work. I just worked out what the overall picture is, the jigsaw into which all of these pieces can be assembled.

And I do mean just. It’s about 1AM on Christmas Eve, but this picture hit me so hard I couldn’t stop thinking about it without writing it down and getting it out of my head. If it doesn’t explain everything, it shows me the shape of the solution at least.

A tale of two Apples

I believe that everything I wrote in the Conflicts post can be understood in terms of two different and (of course) opposed models of Apple. I also believe that the two models are irreconcilable, but that the opposition is also accidental, not essential. That by removing the supposed conflict between them, everything I thought was a problem can be resolved.

It was the best of iPads

The iPad is, I would argue (and accept that this is a subjective argument) the most tasteful application of computing technology to the world of many computer users. I would further argue, and this is perhaps on firmer ground, that the reason the iPad is so tasteful is because Apple spend a lot more time and resources on worrying about questions of taste than many of their competitors and others in the industry.

There are many visions that have combined to produce the iPad, but interestingly the one that I think is clearest is John Scully’s Knowledge Navigator. In the concept videos for Knowledge Navigator, a tablet computer with natural language speech comprehension and a multi-touch screen is able to use the many hyperlinked documents available on the Web to answer a wide range of questions, make information available to its users and even help them to plan their schedules.

This is what we have now. This is the iPad, with Siri and a host of third-party applications. Apple even used to use the slogan “there’s an app for that”. Do you have a problem? You can probably solve it with iOS and a trip to the app store.

It was the worst of iPads

OK, what do you do if your problem isn’t solved on the app store, or the available solutions aren’t satisfactory?

Well first, you’d better get yourself another computer because while the iPad is generally designed for solving problems it isn’t designed for solving general problems. You might be able to find some code editors on the iPad, but you sure aren’t going to use them to write an iPad app without external assistance.

OK, so you’ve got your computer, and you’ve learned how to do the stuff that makes iPad apps. Now you just pay a recurring fee to be allowed to put that stuff onto your iPad. And what if you want to share that with your friends? Only if it meets Apple’s approval.

If the iPad is the Knowledge Navigator, it is not the Dynabook. A Dynabook is a computer that you can use to solve your problems on, but it’s also one on which you can create solutions to your own problems.

The promise of the Dynabook is that if you understand what your problem is, you can model that problem on the Dynabook. You model it with objects-either your own or ones supplied for you. You can change and create these objects until they model the problem you have, at which point you can use them to compute a solution.

The irony is that we have all the parts needed in a Dynabook, all in the iPad. Computer so simple even children can use it? Check. Objects? Check. Repositories of objects created by other people so we don’t have to rewrite our own basic objects all the time? We call that CocoaPods (or RubyGems, or whatever the poison in your area of the world). But we just can’t put all of these things together on that computer itself.

That would be distasteful. That might let people do things that make the iPad look bad. That might mean iPads providing experiences that haven’t been vetted by the mothership.

Does using an iPad ever make you wonder how iPads work? What they can do? What you can make them do? You can answer these questions, but not using an iPad. Your Knowledge Navigator does not know the route to that particular destination.

This is what is truly meant when it is said that the iPad is not upgradeable. Forget swapping out memory chips or radio transmitters. Those are just lumps of sand inside a box made of melted sand and refined rock. The iPad is not upgradeable because you are stuck with the default experience: the out-of-the-box facilities plus those that have been approved from on high. It might be good, but it might not be good enough.

Notice that this is not an “everyone must program” position. That would be a very bad experience. The position is rather “everyone must have the facility, should they be so inclined, to make their computer better for them than the manufacturers did”.

Conclusions?

I think that the Apple described above is not at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. It is at the border, a self-appointed barrier of things that might flow between the two.

I believe that the two visions can be reconciled, and that a thing can be both the Knowledge Navigator and the Dynabook. I don’t believe you have to disable some experiences to provide others. I believe that Apple the champions of tasteful computing can be applauded at every turn while Apple the high priests of the church of computing can be fought tooth and nail.

Enablers? Yes, please. Arbiters? No, thanks.