Saturday, April 10, 2010

Cory Doctorow is full of shit

So, like many other people I’ve read Mr. Doctorow’s explanation of why he will not buy an iPad and neither should you. Long story short: he says that Apple’s closed walled-garden platform (that cannot be taken apart or physically modified) is bad for developers and bad for users. Go read it, it’s worth reading. But he’s full of shit.

Am I the only one who remembers just how horrible American cell phones were just a few years ago? Every single one was a locked-down walled-garden captive market with “custom” (read: awful) operating systems from each vendor that crippled even the best hardware. They charged for damn near everything, from ring tones to moving photos around, and removed basic functionality because it didn’t fit their “vision”. Whatever the flaws of the iPhone and the 3G iPad, it’s a hell of a lot better than what we had before, especially as basically a transitional device. From the point of view of the cell phone companies, the iPhone has been a Trojan Horse, and I think it’s no accident that it was picked up by one of the weakest competitors in that field. AT&T was the defector from a common strategy, remember, when they basically broke ranks and agreed to sell a phone over which someone else had control over the software, particularly the Apps.

I have many issues with the App store. But I have never in my life seen such a thriving market for small-scale indie software. There has been a gaping hole in that part of the software market for many years, based on an unwillingness or inability to pay for small pieces of software that do one limited thing well. Up until recently, the only viable paths for these kinds of software have been shareware, freeware, and open source for distributed software, and pretty much only ad-supported software for online services. These are miserable options and have helped stunt the growth of the software industry. The App Store is a worthwhile experiment in small-scale software sales. It’s been done better on a limited scale, but by and large I don’t think it’s terrible.

That said, their review process as-implemented is something that I can’t entirely get behind. Wanting to insure that Apps don’t open security holes? Awesome. Filtering out useful apps just to protect AT&T’s benighted business practices? Obnoxious, but for the moment a semi-reasonable bargain. Going through and cutting out swathes of ‘adult’ apps? Ridiculous and obnoxious. But these flaws are fixable, and market pressure from the Droid contingent may well push Apple to solve them. What’s not as fixable is their ability to squash whole sub-markets by picking winners from an immature field and/or pushing their own solution -- that will require either self-control or Justice Department action. So, this is not a perfect approach by any stretch, but that imperfection can be addressed by competition.

See, I think that the key insight here is that Apple is not so much selling iPads and iPhones so much they are selling convenient and portable access to Apps. The whole philosophy behind this hardware is to be as transparent as possible: it’s supposed to be practically a physical manifestation of software, a blank slate that turns into any other handheld device. They’ve made it possible for someone to sell me a $2 scientific calculator, that turns into someone else’s $1 pocket video game, and someone else’s free e-reader. It’s not intended to replace your laptop (as will be obvious when they unveil their next expensive MacBook lineup) it’s intended to replace the dozens of other (mostly unmoddable!) devices that you already have or would like to have. [1] Here, then, his complaint seems to be that there ought not be a gatekeeper.

But there are significant benefits to having a gatekeeper that Doctorow doesn’t acknowledge. He complains that Apple treats its users like morons. But the majority of the computer-using population has demonstrated incompetence when it comes to computer security, and they’ve been aided and abetted by operating systems that let them install whatever the hell they want. Do you have any idea just how many botnets there are out there? How many people fall for stupid tricks like popping up an official-looking window asking permission to infect their machines with all manner of nasties?

This all isn’t the fault of the users, necessarily. I’ve heard many explanations ranging from confusing user interfaces to a simple lack of education about how computers work, but relatively few proposals for how to address this issue -- many of them basically requiring a step where “All our users suddenly get savvier”. But over the last 25 years of having open platforms (free compilers, free and open source operating systems, standardized hardware that’s easy to mix and match) the average user had gotten continually dumber and less savvy. It may be insulting to assume that most of your consumer base is stupid, but it’s not wrong. And having a device that’s easier to use means attracting users who are too dumb to use even a PC. Apple’s approach is a solution to this problem, with a simplified interface and strictly-controlled installation path. Not the best solution for everyone, but hey: the iPad wasn’t really made for people for whom those aren’t problems. For those who do suffer from those problems, the iPad ain’t bad. I could give my parents or grandparents or teenage cousins an iPad without scaring the hell out of them about being very very careful of what they download and run. (I mean, I won’t, because I’m a cheapskate. But I could.) They’ll fall prey to viruses and worms sooner or later, but with these safeguards they’re going to be more resilient than your average Windows desktop. You say “Apple’s insulting its customers by calling them stupid”, I say “Apple’s talking responsibility for many of its customers being stupid”. Same thing?

Now, that could be seen as rationale for making the device difficult to tinker with, but I reject that notion that it is difficult to tinker with. Software tinkering is much more interesting for this device than hardware tinkering, given that software is the whole point of the thing. I’ve downloaded -- for free -- their SDKs and looked through the many, many tutorials and documentation files they’ve made available, also for free. I hate Objective C with the heat of, oh, a half-dozen suns, but it’s not an intentional hurdle: those poor fucks at Apple use it too. OK, they make you pay like $100 to upload anything to your own device, which I find mildly irritating, but this is not a major or unexpected hurdle. Dev kits for embedded devices like PICs or FPGAs can cost much more than that, and I’ve rarely heard people say that those things were killing innovation. Compilers for a number of systems have frequently been sold rather than given away free, too. Besides, if cost is such a hurdle, jailbreaking works just as well, and judging from Apple’s reactions I doubt they’re really that unhappy about the jailbreakers. So, yeah: if you want to fiddle with your iPad, you have to shell out some dough and/or jump through some hoops. Are those hoops really more onerous than learning to program in the first place? I doubt it.

Having discussed the software, let’s address his complaint that being unable to open it means that you don’t really own it... That’s true to an extent, but it is a gross oversimplification. For one thing, you can open it. I can buy a $10 plastic piece to pop open my iPod Touch, and I nearly did when I broke the screen. Instructions abound for explaining exactly how to disassemble an reassemble it. The trouble is, screws or no screws, the kind of electronic fabrication required to build this device means that modding this thing is going to be extremely difficult no matter what. It’s neither easier nor more difficult to open up and modify than most other similarly-scaled consumer devices -- it’s just a more attractive target. My Nintendo DS isn’t very easy to mod either, but nary a peep about that. Sure, Apple could have added solder points, a better peripheral port, maybe put out hardware documentation, but I can’t exactly pretend to be surprised that they didn’t, considering that the second version of its device was (still is?) delayed while waiting for FCC approval. [2] I’m much less happy about relying on them to swap out batteries, or being unable to change hard drives or add more RAM, but these things are somewhat trivial, amounting to wanting the same thing Apple sold you, only numerically better. The only thing I’m really unhappy about is the Bluetooth lockdown, particularly the inability to add a keyboard.

So, Doctorow is sorta, kinda right as far as that goes: if your interest in a platform have more to do with hacking the hardware than hacking the software, it’s not designed for you. No cell phone type device is, until the FCC decides it’s ok to take a few (reasonable?) risks. But it is friendly to most of its intended audience, it’s not far outside mainstream practices (I’d say that it’s a damn sight more generous than the standard practices of the cell phone industry!), and Doctorow’s unwillingness to acknowledge that fact, or to acknowledge that Apple has helped made the cell phone a hell of a lot more consumer/developer friendly, makes it very hard to take him seriously.

As for the remaining point (his digression on journalism is orthogonal) about ownership of the digital stuff you buy... I am sympathetic, but skeptical. This is a complicated question that society basically has not yet answered, and while I may admire Doctorow for being willing to give away so freely the fruits of his mental labor, I think he frequently goes way too far in expecting others to basically do the same. The end result of his mentality here is, in my opinion, likely to be an environment where creative programming can only be a hobby to many people rather than a means of support. When he says at the end, “If you want to write code for a platform where the only thing that determines whether you're going to succeed with it is whether your audience loves it, the iPad isn't for you.” He might as well say “this society isn’t for you” or “this species isn’t for you.” There are always externalities and tradeoffs: ability to distribute, ability to get the word out, ability to stay within local laws, ability to get your adoring audience to pay you instead of grabbing your code from a warez site, &c. And notice that he doesn’t say “if you want to be paid to write code for a platform...” I question the notion that making that cash selling through Apple’s App Store is that much more onerous for the majority of developers than making that cash dealing with advertising companies or PayPal. I also question the proposition that the difficulties to the remaining developers outweigh Apple’s interest in maintaining the security and ease of use of the device. If he’d like to make an argument in favor of another platform like Android or describe a hypothetical ideal, I’m all ears. If he wants to make an argument in favor of government regulation of walled-garden markets, again, I’m all ears. But he hasn’t attempted to make those arguments, so far as I know.

(Oh, a word on Flash: I hate Flash. Fuck Flash. The people who use Flash now on their sites were the people who used to love blink tags. The notion that Apple’s refusal to support it may mean fewer Flash-based websites and talking ads? Fills me with glee. That will go away when HTML 5 becomes the “let’s annoy the piss out off John!” method of choice, but I’ll take what I can get for now.)

(Also: it bothers me that Apple’s spell-checker flags “ain’t” as a misspelling. Fuck you, Jobs, and the prescriptivist linguistics you rode in on!)

[1] His point that gadgets come and go works against him here, in my opinion: if I desperately need a calculator that handles trig functions exactly once and then never again, owning an iPhone or iPad makes it much easier, more environmentally friendly, and less costly to acquire and then discard it. And how many pedometers are Americans going to buy before finally admitting that we’ll never really like them? Should they go into the landfill, or into the bit bucket? But even if Apple completely drops the iPad and iPhone, I’ll bet dollars to donuts [3] that a slew of emulators will pop up and allow us to keep on using the ones we’ve already bought.
[2] The FCC issue is a big one that he fails to acknowledge, and I think it significantly weakens his argument. In order to keep costs down, the regular iPad needs to be very similar to the 3G one (not to mention the iPhone), and we’re just not going to see such a device being friendly to hardware hackers.
[3] especially if those donuts cost more than a dollar each

1 comment:

  1. On another machine I read a Slashdot comment, which I now cannot find, that puts a very different spin on this: Basically, Apple has set up a multi-part creative ecosystem, where the Mac line is intended for the creation of content, and the iP{ao}ds for the consumption of it. This is an interesting point, and serves as a reminder that Apple still plainly puts a lot of stock in the intelligence and creativity of its customers... but that they also envision that an Apple Customer is likely to have both a Mac and an iP{oa}d, an assumption that I also made in the above text, which may not be true of Cory Doctorow. (Of course, by this reading, they are saying something less than flattering about those iP{ao}d customers who use Windows or Linux PCs...)