iPad: Why Must We Be Forced To Choose?

There is, of course, the expected hoo-hah about the iPad. The rage between those who love it and those who can’t stand its proprietary nature is in full swing. Yet, I am constantly in awe of the fact that nobody seems to notice the obvious and simple cause of this clash.

It all comes down to one thing. Why must we be forced to choose between a good user experience and openness? How come we can’t have both? Every open platform has a god-awful user interface, relatively speaking. All Apple products, especially the portable devices, have a great user experience. I don’t personally like OSX, but I can’t deny that it gets a lot of things right that everyone else gets wrong. Font rendering is a good example.

People who don’t care about openness, or aren’t aware of the problem, are thrilled. They get everything they want. Hooray for them. People who do care about openness are enraged. Why are they mad about something they aren’t going to buy or use? This is easy to explain.

They are mad because they see an unfulfilled potential. Think of a screwdriver. A typical screwdriver can screw any screw that is of appropriate size. Imagine a copper screw and a steel screw that are otherwise identical. For some reason the screwdriver works on the steel screw but not the copper one for no apparent reason. I think most people would consider such a screwdriver to be broken.

A device like the iPad has all the hardware necessary to do a billion amazing things. However, it only does a few thousand things. Why? Because Steve Jobs says so. Who is he to tell me what I can and can’t do with this thing that I have bought? If you compare it to the screwdriver example, you can say that the iPad/iPhone/iPod are all broken. Broken technology enrages the geek, especially when they can’t fix it.

The nerd goes out to get a different screwdriver that is not broken. All these other screwdrivers are great. They work on all screws, as expected. However, they all have really uncomfortable handles. Every single screwdriver out there which is not broken is really uncomfortable. There is not a single exception.

Why can’t someone just take the good screwdriver and stick it on the comfortable handle? It’s so simple. There is no law of physics preventing it from happening. It’s 100% possible, but for whatever reason it just doesn’t exist. Every single screwdriver on the shelf is either broken or uncomfortable. The geeks can not be satisfied. Their rage multiplies exponentially.

This is the source of the rage against Apple. Apple seems to be the only company capable of making screwdrivers with comfortable handles, but their screwdrivers can’t do half of the things that other cheaper screwdrivers can do. Meanwhile, all those other cheaper screwdrivers give you blisters when you use them. I’m getting angry just thinking about this imaginary screwdriver scenario.

There are only two solutions I see. One is that Apple opens up. Apple is clearly capable of open sourcing things. They could just open their portable hardware and software, and that would be that. Obviously it will never happen, but I don’t understand why. If Apple did it, they would have immediate complete market dominance. If they had a comfortable and fully featured screwdriver, all competition would crumble instantly. There would be no reason to buy any competitor’s product.

The other solution is for the open source people to just shamelessly start ripping Apple off. If we can’t invent something better, which we clearly can not, then let’s reverse engineer and straight-up steal all of Apple’s stuff. Take the screwdriver handle down to the metal shop, copy it exactly, and attach it to a real screwdriver. Patent laws my ass. Why should we settle for anything less than achieving our full technological potential? Patents are supposed to help, not hinder, progress. If they are hindering, let’s just ignore them.

Google, I’m looking at you. You must know that Android’s UI sucks compared to iPhone. You have a jillion dollars. Just hire the best designers in the world, and get it done. What are you waiting for? You’re supposed to be a company of geniuses, why didn’t you just do this in the first place for Android 1.0? What can you possibly be thinking? What are all the non-Apple companies thinking?

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7 Responses to iPad: Why Must We Be Forced To Choose?

  1. monkeyhole says:

    Have you considered that the sterilized environment is a large contributor to a great user experience? Open source means the ability to play with the ‘bits’, and then you’re back where you started. I firmly believe that Apple’s tight grip on their environment is part of what makes their environment so great to use. I don’t see missed opportunity, I see that Apple has taken one path, and there are still many, many paths available on the full spectrum between open and closed development.

  2. Conrad says:

    I feel you man. Having used Android for 90 solid days now I can say it’s been nothing but one bumbling disappointment after another, a point that I recently expounded upon in my own blog.

    I take aim at your claim that Apple’s Silver Bullet here is open sourcing its applications, however. I submit that is the anarchistic nature of Android that has directly contributed to its downfall, with Google completely unable to wrangle its handset manufacturers into supporting anything but the most basic of common functionality (the four face buttons.) Android didn’t get off to a good start, of course, what with an API that didn’t support multi-touch and an interface that looks like some kind of awful fusion of the worst of Apple and Nokia slammed together. That said, we would anticipate that the open source nature of Android would lead to gradual improvement.

    And yet here we are, stuck with the same garbage interface we’ve always used. Looking at the state of iPhone vs. Android, the claim could be made that its closed nature is its strength, with Apple now able to rigidly enforce interface guidelines and update schedules. (And oh do they ever enforce them; my app was rejected twice initially.)

    To answer your question: I think we’re forced to choose because design by committee never, ever works, and yet it is the cornerstone of FOSS development (looking at you Gnome, KDE.) Not even someone like Shuttleworth, with real vision for a FOSS project, can wrangle enough support together because everyone is too busy pounding away on things they consider “important” while ignoring the package as a whole. Meanwhile if Steve Jobs thinks part of the interface is bad, or something doesn’t work well POOT! Out it goes! Ultimately this does lead to a tighter, yes, /better/ product. (Dare I say that perhaps Plato was right?)

    Apple’s app store implementation is definitely not the healthiest development in the computer industry; not by a long shot. For people like us, who demand openness and transparency in their devices, there will always be a solution. I attest that very likely it will never be the best one.

  3. Conrad says:

    Expanding on my previous points: the reason you can’t go to the metalworker and get an exact copy of the screwdriver is because we still live in a capitalist society, and it’s a dam’n good thing in this case. I attest the iPhone’s interface never have materialized otherwise.

    There’s a lot of money in being the best right now. Apple is proving this, having shipped 43 million iPhones. Would Apple have invested as much money into its development if it only managed to ship 1 million iPhones before OpenPhone, NetPhone and FreePhone all hit the market, shipping exactly the same functionality with binary compatibility? I attest they would not. Apple needed to protect the novel distinctions that separated its product from its competitors, and has done so quite effectively. They didn’t patent multitouch, they patented the novel pinch-to-zoom functionality. They didn’t patent lists of data, just the novel spring-at-the-bottom-and-top functionality.

    In fact, patents have done some good things for us in this case, and we need go no further than Windows Mobile 7 to see that. WinMo7 contains a completely different, yet just as compelling an interface, taking very few cues from Apple. Many of these novel concepts were developed in response to Apple’s patent portfolio, and what we have now are innovative solutions to common problems.

    Your defeatist attitude that everyone should be able to copy everyone as a means of innovation runs contrary to itself. Innovation is almost always a direct side-effect of adversity, be it market pressure, patents or otherwise.

    (Footnote: This, however, is not to say that I’m generally in support of software patents. Many are far too broad, and all go on for far too long. If a particular facet of a piece of software is patentable it should be patentable for no longer than two years, and the patent itself should be quite narrow.)

  4. luke says:

    “If Apple did it, they would have immediate complete market dominance.”

    They already do have complete market dominance in the areas where most money is to be made.

  5. Lanber says:

    Sigh. Unfortunately, El Job-so is a god among men. So, the best thing we can hope for is for the opensource people to start ripping Apple off.

  6. Apreche says:

    It is true that the design by committee will fail to create a great design. That is why things like KDE or Gnome suck balls.

    The thing is, why can’t you have something be open source, but also have a singular design vision?

    Let’s pretend I had the talent to design something amazing. I put up some design document and start coding. I put the code on Github or whatever. People start helping me out. If they submit a patch that is bad design, I reject it. If they submit a patch that kills the battery, I reject it. For many patches, I can take the good parts, and reject the bad parts. Git makes that easy.

    If people want to fork, so be it. Let them fork. All the users will still come to my project because the UI doesn’t suck. Having all the users means I’ll still have enough developers helping me out. My design vision remains intact, but it’s still open source. People can still do as they please. Most people will download and use it as-is.

    Linus and his lieutenants keep crap out of the kernel. Why not do the same with a more visual app, perhaps an X window manager for tablets?

  7. Conrad says:

    Has Linus+Co really done a good job in that regard? Look at the sound architecture: while the *BSD devs have been slowly but steadily improving the OSS interface (leading to things like kernel-level software mixing), Linux has gone from OSS to ALSA, which in turn is being labeled as deprecated in favor of things like PulseAudio.

    Meanwhile: scheduler implementations which make the desktop more responsive are passed over in favor of algorithms that are beneficial to massive rack deployments. I understand Linus’ desire to keep the tree relatively light weight, but I think we can all agree that what works for a 4096-CPU cluster might not be the best choice for a 1-to-4-core desktop/cell phone.

    Ultimately I believe you’re absolutely right. If the FOSS community had its own Steve Jobs (sorry Shuttleworth) I think we would be in a much different situation. Are the people drawn to FOSS not generally the types who would be able to look at the big picture? I’m not sure. I can hope and wish for change all I want, but at the moment I think this is the hand we’re dealt.

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