06/06/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The iPad, My Mother, and the Doctor(ow)

And so, the iPad is launched upon the world, and there were equal parts adulation and gnashing of teeth. Everyone has had to voice their opinion - from the analytical tech press to the equal parts eloquent, intelligent and over-verbose Stephen Fry. Thousands of voices crawled out of the woodwork, demanding that their disparate opinions be heard.

Cory Doctorow went on the record to declare that you should not buy an iPad, and in 1,682 words revealed why he's already made up his mind before putting his hands on one. In fact, he says that "If you want to live in the fair world where you get to keep (or give away) the stuff you buy, the iPad isn't for you." This cunningly ignores several industries that have done this before him, that haven't been subject to untested and strangely bitter rants. If you can't open it up and mess around with it, it's a bad product.

The real statement that got to me, though, was this: "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."

You know what? I sit my niece and nephew down in front of the television in the hopes they'll be entertained. If one of the little blighters started fiddling with the tube, I'd probably be angry at them, not awash with pride over their childish curiosity.

Doctorow's well-written yet slightly bizarre article continues to argue that Apple has "has erected a drawbridge" between salesman and customer, and that Apple's policies have strings attached that somehow make the entire operation a draconian operation and yada-yada-yada...


Target. Amazon. Microsoft. Sony. Your Bodega down the street. A lemonade stand. All of these companies deal with complex points of sale. Has the world, in its over-appreciation and/or over-hatred of Apple, become so blind as to only attack the sales process of one digital sales company? While I am in no way saying that their DRM policies, sharing rules, and any number of rules within the SDK are totally 100% fair, it seems that anybody discussing Apple's App Store seems to extol the benefits of some kind of open-access environment that exists everywhere else, and that Apple is some great burning effigy of evil.

Guess what. Submitting to PSN or XBLA is not a process of calling Kaz Hirai or Steve Balmer and saying "Good day sir! One PSN title on the store, if you would!" Far from it. Got a new kind of games console? You can't just walk into Target, put it on the shelf and stamp $299.99 and hope it sells. Apple's system has become immensely popular due to a low cost-of-entry, but is currently 'new' enough that everybody and their mother is reading about, digesting and commenting on it. That means that a lot of people are over-criticizing elements that are, frankly, part of the larger economic model of stores. Ultimately I read like a willing capitalist, and maybe I am, but what Apple is doing is not out of the ordinary.

The fact of the matter is, it's a popular device, and they are doing their best to keep a constant torrent of new applications to some level of quality, with middling but not catastrophic results. Looking at the Android App Store, one can't help but shrug at the offerings. Bland. In some cases costly. No uniform look. No structure between devices - any number of applications could run in any different number of ways on any different number of devices. A Nexus One could operate very differently to a Tegra-powered Android Tablet. Thus the store becomes - even more so than the Apple App Store - a mess of unfocused applications going to so many different levels of device-owner (further fragmenting as you imagine the different levels of consumer that would buy such a device).

The point I'm making is that Apple not only had to standardize, but they did so with good reason. They knew the device inside and out. So they gave developers an SDK, and said 'make something, but these are the rules to get on our store.' This isn't to say it's perfect - just that that's how you get on the shelf. There are rules for every storefront in the world, and by the very nature of being part of Apple's larger software initiative, and programming for a particular device, you are bound to theirs.

Reasonable, unreasonable, fair, unfair, those are the rules of a storefront. For the most part - with notable exceptions - they want people to make Apps that look, feel and work right on their device. If your App runs terribly, it looks bad for them, and they have just as much to lose (i.e.: someone will probably never buy an iPhone again, versus your App developer's work.)

This is in the mindset of those who would be picking up and iPad or iPhone or iPod Touch in a store, versus your average person who will sit there and work out who the developer is, and then avoid them.

And this comfortably leads back to Mr. Doctorow's work.

...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).

This is not the fanboy in me speaking - I'm an egalitarian chap - but how bloody dare you say that a device that is made to be less confusing or easier-to-use is 'infantalizing hardware'? Again, have you used an iPad? Even if you were going off of the logic of "it's just a big iPod Touch," by-in-large this is not a simple device. It isn't a Firefly. It's a bloody computer - a simpler one, sure, one that you can't multitask on, one that can't see Flash, but a computer nonetheless. In no way has Apple ever made a product that felt condescending towards the buyer (one of the reasons that they've succeeded, I might add). Just because they haven't included schematics (one of Doctorow's reasons that he liked the Apple ][), and that it's not capable of going into a Terminal screen, and uses Apple-verified software doesn't mean that it's only for slack-jawed yokels and 60-year-old mothers.

If it's simpler, but does a great deal of different things, that's great. Make the internet more accessible to people who do not know how to or don't like using normal computers is, in a word, fantastic. Guess what? More people using the internet encourages the free spread of information - for better or for worse. It would be a far scarier world if nothing was ever made with the view of giving access to technology to people who wanted to learn more but were confused by it. In fact, that'd be a terrible society. It's taken my mother five years to even understand how to send an email using a laptop. She could probably do it in a day on an iPad. I'll try this theory out in June, and report back on it.

Oh, and I've used one for hours on end, so this isn't all based on conjecture.