Apple, Technology

Walled Garden Party

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Tomorrow morning, as you know, is The Dawn of a New Era in Personal Computing. The Coming of the iPad will bring about a magical age where people are directly connected to content, and they will become mindless consumers tied to an unchecked corporate overlord, and also it will flop and no one will buy one. All at the same time. It’s just that special.

I was pretty skeptical of Apple’s marketing at first; I thought the claim that it was “magical and revolutionary” was a bunch of flowery nonsense. But now I’m convinced. Somehow, even before its release, the iPad has taken what was once a disparate group of strangers with internet access and magically turned them into thousands of experts, better able to tell me how I should spend my money than I’d be able to by myself. And it’s going to bring about a revolution (which won’t be televised in widescreen format, apparently) in which everyone suddenly finds himself unable to think for himself or create anything of value.

All across the web are the brave souls documenting the downfall of society. It’s been a little bit disheartening watching Nilay Patel of Engadget make the transition from his initial guarded optimism to having to mention the lack of printing and the App store’s rating system in only tangentially-related posts. I actually can’t tell if he’s being serious, or if he’s just been worn down by the thousands of commenters just plain losing their shit over the idea that a gadget blog would cover a new piece of consumer technology. Stay strong!

It’s a little easier with Marc Bernardin’s post on io9, a sarcastic but pleasant enough little piece about the ability to read comic books on the iPad that gives an overview of what apps are going to be available and what it means for distribution and oh my god we’re all gonna die where the hell did that come from all of a sudden?

With Ownership of Media Comes Great Responsibility

But the best of all is Cory Doctorow’s manifesto on Boing Boing, helpfully entitled “Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either).” It’s certainly no surprise that the guy who’s appointed himself lead internet spokesperson against the evils of digital rights management would choose to write a tirade against Apple; the only surprising thing is that he waited this long. John Gruber wrote a response that was more even-tempered than I could be. And, frankly, more even-tempered than Doctorow’s post deserves.

I should make it clear that I don’t have anything personal against Doctorow; for all I know he’s a fine person, albeit one I’d probably hate getting stuck talking to at a party. But it seems that the iPad (and its media coverage) has magically turned him from an amusingly passionate and occasionally irritating anti-DRM evangelist, into full-on sputtering douchenozzle. On the plus side, his post makes Annalee Newitz’s rant on io9 (which tried to say exactly the same thing, a month earlier) seem reasoned and thoughtful by comparison. On the negative side: everything else.

First he rails against the assault on comic books:

I mean, look at that Marvel app (just look at it). I was a comic-book kid, and I’m a comic-book grownup, and the thing that made comics for me was sharing them. If there was ever a medium that relied on kids swapping their purchases around to build an audience, it was comics. And the used market for comics! It was — and is — huge, and vital. I can’t even count how many times I’ve gone spelunking in the used comic-bins at a great and musty store to find back issues that I’d missed, or sample new titles on the cheap.
[...]
So what does Marvel do to “enhance” its comics? They take away the right to give, sell or loan your comics. What an improvement. Way to take the joyous, marvellous sharing and bonding experience of comic reading and turn it into a passive, lonely undertaking that isolates, rather than unites. Nice one, Misney.

Haha, way to stick it to The Man, C-Doc! Because as we all know, Disney is a pure representation of Evil Multinational Corporation that stifles creativity, since it’s still 1994 and all of us had our emotional and intellectual maturation stopped when we were sophomores in college. Also, MEAT IS MURDER! Ever since tiny upstart mom-and-pop operation Marvel Comics got bought by their new corporate overlords, they’ve stopped publishing single issues. Even worse, they’re stifling kids’ enjoyment of comics by making them available on every single digital platform in existence.

I, too, am a comic-book grownup. And as a grownup I would prefer to have hundreds of comic books on a one pound, half-inch high device instead of in the boxes and stacks that are overflowing my closet, bookshelves, romantic-encounter-inhibiting stack beside my bed, and my parents’ basement. If I want to share them, then holy shit they’re now on a device that’s the same size as a comic book! I can hand somebody else the iPad, and it’ll even flip over to let them read it! Also the last time I shared a single issue of a comic book with anyone was when I was 18!

The comic book thing is just the first sign that Doctorow has become the worst kind of Old Guard: the Old Guard who believes he’s still cutting-edge counter-culture. The kind who believes that putting a picture of Steve Jobs upside down or using epithets like “Misney” is anything more than a lazy substitute for bonafide insight. What he’s done here is conflate two things: his pet cause of “ownership” of media, and the joyous magic of sharing. It’s selfishness disguised as generosity. If I start buying comics on an iPad, then I’m every bit as free to go “spelunking” through the online catalog for back issues — I could buy, right now, the first 10 issues of X-Men and read them immediately and individually; they’re not to the best of my knowledge in print as single issues. I could share my collection with anyone by sharing my iPad.

What I can’t do is take someone else’s work and sell it. That is not, however, “sharing.”

Sainted Mothers and Tricked-Out Alarm Clocks

Next Doctorow really gets amped up over the shocking — shocking — insight that Apple has made a computer that you can’t open.

Then there’s the device itself: clearly there’s a lot of thoughtfulness and smarts that went into the design. But there’s also a palpable contempt for the owner. I believe — really believe — in the stirring words of the Maker Manifesto: if you can’t open it, you don’t own it. [...] But with the iPad, it seems like Apple’s model customer is that same stupid stereotype of a technophobic, timid, scatterbrained mother as appears in a billion renditions of “that’s too complicated for my mom” (listen to the pundits extol the virtues of the iPad and time how long it takes for them to explain that here, finally, is something that isn’t too complicated for their poor old mothers).

He goes on (and on), but the whole passage just shows a palpable contempt for anyone who sees a computer as a tool. He paints himself as the defender of those whose intelligence is being insulted by a Nanny Corporation. What he’s really doing is insulting those of us who want to embrace the 21st century and create new stuff, instead of being burdened by the unnecessary hassles of an outmoded philosophy of technology.

The whole business about defending moms is pure bullshit — if the strawman he’s arguing against is using the “it’s for moms to send photos” defense, then he’s set himself up against some lazy, lazy people. In my case, for instance: my mother has, literally, been using computers for as long as I have, since we each got a Commodore 64 on the same day. I went on to get a CS degree and go into programming professionally, and she went on to use a computer for everything from writing to communication to entertainment. And of the two of us, she has no interest in the iPad (it doesn’t do enough to set it apart from her iMac), and I’m going to pick one up on day one.

It’s not that I can’t figure out how to do all the esoteric BS that the Apple II and C-64 and every DOS machine in existence made you go through. It’s that I don’t want to. I vividly remember having to edit startup batch files and change interrupt request settings and go into the BIOS just to get a game to run. And I’m thankful that I don’t have to do that ever again. For that matter, I’ve never overclocked my microwave or hacked into my television. (I’m pretty sure I still “own” them, though, thanks).

You should only have to deal with the shit that you want to. When I was in college, I learned how to wire logic gates and I learned how to make a compiler. And with good reason: knowing how a logic board worked and how a compiler turned text into machine code were useful for making more efficient code. (Which is all hopelessly outdated, of course). But I never had to wire up a logic board to turn on my Mac and browse the web, and I never had to write a compiler to write programs for the iPhone. To suggest that that’s in any way ignorant or complacent is just insulting. It’s not that I can’t do this stuff, it’s that I don’t want to.

And I hate to break it to Mr. Doctorow, but he’s not the first to come to the insight that Apple is deliberately trying to sell people on a device where the hardware itself is de-emphasized. That was revealed in this shocking expose revealing Apple’s sinister plan. That insider video drops the bombshell that what Apple is really aiming for is a computing experience where you don’t even think about the hardware, but instead are distracted by all the flashing lights on the screen. But of course, Apple tries to spin it by calling it “the stuff you want to do with a computer in the first place.”

There’s nothing noble or intelligent about having to re-invent the wheel every time you want to accomplish something. That’s not progress; it’s retardation, literally. Doctorow is a science fiction writer whose best known works are a novel set in Disney World, and one whose title is an allusion to George Orwell’s 1984. He rose to fame writing for a website that highlights other people’s work. Those aren’t intended as a dig at Doctorow, but as simple observations: of all people, he should appreciate the value of derivative work. In his most blatantly insulting condemnation of the “consumers” who want an iPad, he quotes William Gibson.

But how did you read that book to be able to quote it, Mr. Doctorow? How were you able to use it to make your own blog post, instead of starting with a colorful and insulting description from your own imagination? How is your reading a book in its pristine hardbound form any less offensive than reading it in electronic form? (Except, of course, for the distinction that you can make a few bucks back once you’ve discarded it). Chastising other people for wanting an easier and more convenient way to read books, watch movies, and browse the web is the height of hypocrisy. And I’ll bet you anything your copy of the book didn’t have a built-in word processor.

The way you improve your iPad isn’t to figure out how it works and making it better. The way you improve the iPad is to buy iApps. Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

One way to improve your iPad is to buy apps. Another is to design a webpage. Or write a web app. Or write a book. Or make a (finger) painting. Or make a piece of music.

Another way to improve your iPad is to write an app. Suggesting that because you can’t make iPad apps on the iPad, you can’t make them at all, is just plain idiotic. Gruber gave the perfect analogy for this: many of us first became exposed to “computers” via the Atari 2600. Those of us who wanted to play games, kept playing them. Those of us who wanted to make games could ask for a C-64, or Amiga, or Apple II, etc.

Saying that using the iPad will keep people from wanting to develop for the iPad, is every bit as stupid as saying that buying an iPod stifles any desire to make music.

A Low Blow

Dale Dougherty’s piece on Hypercard and its influence on a generation of young hackers is a must-read on this. I got my start as a Hypercard programmer, and it was Hypercard’s gentle and intuitive introduction to the idea of remaking the world that made me consider a career in computers.

I have an unabashed and borderline unhealthy love for HyperCard, and I still do consider it one of the Top 10 greatest pieces of consumer software ever created. I’d be afraid that I was starting to agree with Doctorow, but of course he’s just quoting the genuine insight of Dale Dougherty. (Which is indeed a must-read. (On, say, your iPad)).

Using HyperCard wasn’t my first exposure to programming. It was, however, the first time I loved programming. And a HyperCard experience on the iPad — assuming it got it right where several attempts to recapture the original have failed — would be awesome. Every time Bento gets updated, I take another look to see if they’ve radically changed their philosophy and turned it into a HyperCard successor; every time, I go away disappointed.

It’s tough, because on the iPhone and now on the iPad, Apple has forbidden apps from using interpreted code (user-generated interpreted code, to be specific). That forces everything to be based on predefined templates and limits any app from turning into a real development environment. If any App store restriction were lifted, that would be the one I’d vote for.

But you know, the world has changed a little bit since 1988, when I had my first Mac. HyperCard’s main appeal was that it had a visual development environment where you could drag-and-drop interface elements and even data structures, putting together a completely functional interface, writing code only for the parts that you needed to have special functionality. And it all came for free with your Mac. It’s too bad nothing exists like that today. But if you want to write apps for your own device, that costs you $99 a year: half as much as the 1988 cost of MS BASIC and a third as much as the Pascal compiler. Better get to selling those comic books!

If you don’t want to pay at all, then your options are limited. You’re stuck with only Javascript, Python, Ruby, Lua, PHP, or about a billion other freely-available languages to choose from.

More of the Same

In case you didn’t notice, Mr. Doctorow is not a supporter of digital rights management:

The iStore lock-in doesn’t make life better for Apple’s customers or Apple’s developers. As an adult, I want to be able to choose whose stuff I buy and whom I trust to evaluate that stuff. I don’t want my universe of apps constrained to the stuff that the Cupertino Politburo decides to allow for its platform. And as a copyright holder and creator, I don’t want a single, Wal-Mart-like channel that controls access to my audience and dictates what is and is not acceptable material for me to create. The last time I posted about this, we got a string of apologies for Apple’s abusive contractual terms for developers, but the best one was, “Did you think that access to a platform where you can make a fortune would come without strings attached?” I read it in Don Corleone’s voice and it sounded just right. Of course I believe in a market where competition can take place without bending my knee to a company that has erected a drawbridge between me and my customers!

As a copyright holder and creator, I don’t want people taking advantage of my stuff without compensating me for it. I also don’t want to have to deal with keeping secure track of people’s payment information, or pay for outside marketing. I want to do what I’m good at — creating content — and let the people who are really good at attracting customers, handling secure transactions, and accounting for everything afterwards, do their jobs and take their share.

I wonder where I could buy a copy of Doctorow’s book if I love science fiction and irony. (I can only assume that Doctorow vehemently objects to his books being sold through Walmart, and some other nefarious evil corporate entity is to blame). Walmart, like any other retailer, is free to choose what it will and won’t sell in its store. As far as I’m aware, they don’t sell porn, and as far as I’m aware, that corporate decision hasn’t been labeled “abusive.” Walmart, like any other retailer, takes a cut of the sales. Walmart, like other retailers, serves as a centralized location where a person looking for your product can find it and buy it. Replace “Walmart” with the name of any other paid distribution channel — preferably one that a lazy person on a tirade can’t use as lazy shorthand for everything that’s wrong with America — and you’ll see the same thing. And you probably won’t see clumsy comparisons to the mafia.

“But wait,” you might argue, “WalMart isn’t the only place you can buy his books! Because he is awesome and practices what he preaches, you can also download them for free!

And that’s fine for him, and it’s also no different from the options available to any iPhone developer. Apple makes no demands on exclusivity: you can and will often find the same app on iPhones, Android phones, iPads, Mac OS X, Windows, and sometimes free on the web. Where Doctorow’s attempt at an argument goes off the rails is saying “channel that [...] dictates what is and is not acceptable material for me to create.” No one is setting limits on what you can or can’t create. Apple is setting limits on what you can sell in their store. You can’t write an iPhone app and then have it run on an Android phone, obviously, but them’s the breaks. Computers are different, and plenty of people have devised countless ways to separate content from technology to make their content cross-platform. Windows and OS X are both “open” development environments, but you still have to port from one platform to the other.

“But Apple doesn’t just set limits on what you can sell, they set limits on what you can run on the device at all!” Not true. You can develop an app and run it on your own device with no intervention from Apple. You can even set it up to let other people run your app on their device. It’s not free of cost, but it is free of interference.

We all live in a market where competition can take place. The App Store is part of that market; it’s not the whole thing. If someone genuinely finds Apple’s policies “abusive,” he can and will take his content elsewhere.

But that’s for developers. What about the claim that it doesn’t make life better for Apple’s customers? Well, despite Apple’s best efforts to keep me from being able to enjoy my iPhone, there are (by their claim) 150,000 apps available for the thing. That is more than I will ever be able to use in my lifetime. In the three years that I’ve owned the device, I have only once wanted an app that wasn’t available on the store — and in that case, it was removed not by Apple’s policies, but by Amazon’s. Not only do I have a surfeit of fart apps to choose from, but multiple e-book readers, news feed readers, games, Twitter clients, dictionaries, remote controls, comic book readers, databases, blogging clients, and apps that I didn’t even know I wanted before I used them.

I can put any MP3 I can find on the device, whether I buy it from Apple or not. (I get almost all of my MP3s from Amazon, because they’re cheaper).

I can download any of hundreds of TV shows and movies, either entire seasons or individual episodes. If they’re not available from Apple, I can buy the DVDs and convert them to a format that can be watched on the iPhone or iPad, or my TV. (If Doctorow wants to argue that DVD ripping for personal use should be legal, I’ll be right behind him waving a flag of support). If I don’t want to watch something more than once, I can use apps from Netflix or ABC, or go to CBS’s website.

I can buy some books from Apple, or others from Amazon’s Kindle store. Stanza offers thousands more for free from Project Gutenberg. For comics I could buy them directly from any one of several comic-book reading apps, or I could find them on the web and then read them via those same apps.

If I wanted to read Doctorow’s books, I could download the book in PDF or ePub format for free from his website, and then read them using Apple’s own book reader or a third-party one. What I can’t do is then sell that PDF to someone else, because Doctorow is a mafioso-like control freak who wants to make demands on what I can and can’t do with something that I own.

We Know What’s Best For You

Where Doctorow’s post crosses the line from reasonable opinion about the philosophy of media ownership, and goes straight into flatulating asshole territory, is with the insulting and condescending arrogance of the post.

I listed all of the things that I’d be able to do with an iPad, and I said that there has never been an app that I’ve wanted that I couldn’t find. That means that the device will almost definitely work well for me. I would never be so arrogant as to claim that what works or doesn’t work for me would not work for anyone else. If you want Google Voice, don’t get an iPad. If you want to play Flash games, don’t get an iPad. If you want to watch videos from Hulu, or directly from NBC or Fox, don’t get an iPad. There are devices that will probably work better for you, and sane people realize that.

But “and I think you shouldn’t either” is not only obnoxious, but downright hypocritical in a manifesto that rails on Apple for deciding what you should and shouldn’t want. Doctorow screams about “that same stupid stereotype of a technophobic, timid, scatterbrained mother,” and then proceeds to make the shallowest, laziest accusations, passing them off as genuine insight that none of us would have been able to come to on our own. He knows what we want better than we do, apparently.

And like the laziest of shrill internet opinion overseers, he dismisses objections to his ranting as “a string of apologies,” implying that we’re all bloated consumers blinded by the appeal of a shiny new object, unable to make decisions for ourselves.

If I want to spend a wad of my discretionary income on a computer that’s about the size of a trade paperback, turns on in less than a second and lets me immediately browse the web, watch movies, play games, or read any of thousands of books, without having to deal with any of a million bullshit hindrances of the “open internet,” without having to search through dozens of different sources to find the most up-to-date version of a piece of software, and without having to diagnose random crashes or slowdowns: maybe that’s exactly what I want. If enough people want that, they’ll buy it, and the product will succeed. If they don’t, they won’t, and it will fail.

Somebody who spends so much time ranting about free markets should take a second to think about the basics of how they actually work.

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7 thoughts on “Walled Garden Party

  1. Lena_P says:

    I know it’s petty, but I find it hard to take something called “Boing Boing” serious. I also think it’s odd that people are railing against the iPad while staying silent on the kindle. When I searched for information on the kindle at Boing Boing all they seemed interested in was whether or not the kindle would be DRM-free. The fact that Amazon is trying to become an e-book publisher themselves, when they’re already retailer and hardware provider, thus controlling the book market even more effectively than Microsoft controls the OS market doesn’t seem to bother the pundits at Boing Boing at all. So I guess they’re fine with monopolies, as long as they are held by companies less than twenty years old?

  2. I didn’t think that “Walmart is a retailer” was a “defense.”

    And I think it’s important to give Boing Boing credit as separate from one guy who writes for the site. They put up Xeni Jardin’s reasonable (but still excited) review and individual app reviews, right alongside Doctorow’s rant.

    Often I like to make fun of them for being outdated counterculture, but they’re staying true to being a forum for different viewpoints instead of just a one-note tirade against The Man.

  3. I also think it’s odd that people are railing against the iPad while staying silent on the kindle. When I searched for information on the kindle at Boing Boing all they seemed interested in was whether or not the kindle would be DRM-free. The fact that Amazon is trying to become an e-book publisher themselves, when they’re already retailer and hardware provider, thus controlling the book market even more effectively than Microsoft controls the OS market doesn’t seem to bother the pundits at Boing Boing at all. So I guess they’re fine with monopolies, as long as they are held by companies less than twenty years old?

    Well, there’s only so much fury you can muster at one time. There’ve been plenty of complaints about Amazon’s monopolizing the book industry, but as you point out, they’re still acknowledged as retailers while Apple is accused of trying to take over everything. Part of it might just be that the Kindle only sets out to be a single-purpose device for reading books, while the iPad is perceived as being more general purpose.

  4. The only thing I kind of agree with Doctorow about, and it’s probably not really an agreement really because I don’t really care about the DRM thing since even if the books and comics available on the iPad were DRM free and shareable, it still requires someone have a similar device to be able to read the things if you were to “share” them. The only thing someone who wants to borrow a book from me will need is the gift of sight and a light source.

    I’ll remain a hopeless Luddite when it comes to books. Sure, you can hand your iPad over to someone who wants to read that awesome comic, but are you going to lend them the thing for the week it takes to read 10 issues? I understand the appeal of being able to carry around an entire library around at one time, but being the kind of person who can only read one book at a time means I will only ever need to carry one around at a time. And I can read one in the tub.

    Still, I think the iPad is kind of cool, and definitely much cooler than the Kindle BECAUSE it can do more than display a B&W version of a book. But that feature is not what would make me buy one…

  5. Well, one of the problems I have with the anti-DRM arguments is that they insist that publishers and creators adjust to digital media, but expect it to work exactly the same way it always has for consumers. For instance, they’ll say that the publishers/rights-holders have no business complaining about piracy, since a single digital copy of something has no inherent value. But after they’ve bought that digital copy, all of a sudden it has tons of value, and they’ll scream and cry about their ownership of it.

    It’s kind of the same thing with sharing: people will insist that publishers are gouging customers with how incredibly expensive a piece of content costs, since there’s no cost of making a physical copy or shipping it. But as soon as they’ve bought it, all of a sudden it’s no longer just a bunch of valueless bytes but something of worth that they should be able to sell or give away.

    So in theory I think the only DRM issues that matter are the ones that keep me from using something on any device I own, after I’ve bought it. Sharing becomes moot when there’s no physical scarcity. If I’m giving you 10 issues of a comic, I’m not just letting you try it out, I’m giving you the whole thing and effectively depriving the publisher of a sale. If I want to share this great comic with you in digital format, I can just mail you a link, and you can download the trial and/or buy it yourself.

    In practice, though, that sucks, at least for the time being. But there’s still physical media for that. I can still loan somebody a DVD or a book. (Or, if I’m feeling generous, give a gift certificate for the digital copy). Until there’s a good way to “share” digital media without assholes taking advantage of it via BitTorrent, then there’s still going to be a divide between digital media and physical. (I thought I read somewhere that the Kindle will let you “share” a book with someone else for a limited time, by removing your access to your own copy). Until then, digital media is going to need to stay relatively short, cheap, and disposable. Books I would’ve gotten in paperback, I’ll get for the iPad; books that I want to keep I’ll buy the hardbound version.

  6. jmackley says:

    I met my first iPad today. OK. It’s pretty darn sexy. I’m not going to buy one for years. But it’s pretty sexy.

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