Sunday, April 4, 2010

iPad: It’s Not Your Father’s Apple II

Amid the rapturous anticipation of Apple’s iPad, a line of discontent has emerged from several notable techies. They recall their formative years as teenagers tinkering with Apple IIs: You could take ’em apart, hack the software, and learn-by-doing without restriction.

That openness let many kids make the jump from personal-computer consumers—playing games on their Apple IIs—to creators who could make their own games. Many of those kids went on to create software, services, and companies in the Internet era.

Now middle-aged, the concerned techies see the iPad as a squandered opportunity to spark the next generation’s imagination. You can’t open it, you can’t hack it, and you can’t put your own apps on it unless they’ve been approved by Apple. To make the iPad safe for grandma to use, Apple has shut out the kids who will be tomorrow’s creators!

That’s the spirit of the critique. But even as someone who fits the concerned techies’ profile—having spent my early teens hacking an Exidy Sorcerer (an Apple II niche competitor)—I don’t agree.

Here’s why: The iPad versus Apple II comparison implies a limitation, as if today’s teens won’t be able to do what we did in the past because of the iPad. But we no longer live in a world where the Apple II (or iPad) is your only computer. Its capabilities do not determine your fate.

If you are a kid with any proclivity toward exploring computers—and let’s face it, that proclivity was necessary for the early PC teens too—you can just buy a PC and run Linux. That is today’s equivalent of exploring Apple II-era PCs, except the cost is lower, there’s a lot more software (not to mention that newfangled Internet thing), and it’s better documented. And if you’ve got the money for an iPad, you almost certainly have that PC already.

John Gruber has suggested that a better comparison might be the iPad versus the Atari 2600. That is, the average kid with an Apple II also had an Atari 2600 game console, the latter being a closed, dedicated gaming computer. So even back then, it was not “this or that”; it was “this and that.”

Thirty years later, it’s more like “this and that and that and that,” and so on. However, one thing hasn’t changed. Kids with that proclivity toward computers, who want to understand the inner workings, will always find their way to something that lets them explore. It may not be the iPad, but that’s okay. Today’s teens still have many more options than we ever did to find their own ways into computers, as deep as they want to go.

1 comment:

  1. Not to mention that the majority of programming nowadays is happening at the web level, with the browser serving as the UI platform. I imagine that today's nerdy kid starts with interactive javascript on a static HTML page, next step connecting that as a mashup with some other data source or storage engine, maybe moving on to a DB-backed app. The iPad is a perfect client for those starter apps.
    Yes, you need to program and host them on some other machine, but the iPad assumes the existence of another machine anyway. It's not like the iPad is ripping your CDs into its music library...