If iPad is the pinnacle have we climbed the wrong mountain?

When I was young I tinkered with radios, record players and just about anything I cold take apart. I even started an electronics club at school, persuading a teacher to campaign with the faculty to buy some basic components and soldering irons. Our school had a single BBC computer between 1000 pupils which I managed to view from a distance. When I first went to technical college after school, we spent a year theorising, flowcharting & programming computers without actually using one. The net effect of this was I became disillusioned with computing, my school boy dream of becoming a robotisist was more or less scuppered by lack of hands on experience, in short I lost my way.

Later I revived my interest at a second college in London, it was very hands on affair with electronics. We built stuff like bistable and astables from scratch and programmed a microprocessor (6502) motherboard using a hex keypad and 7 segment LED displays. After this I attended university, focusing on Electronics Systems Engineering which was electronics with computing (analog and digital). We did things like analog control systems using analog computing blocks to create PID based control systems. One example I remember fondly machine having a dial that controlled via a motor another replica dial, the object was to get the replica dial to follow the movements you initiated on the control dial. This kind of problem sounds simple until you actually try to do it – Thats when you learn about dynamics, thats when engineering control and real world reveal themselves via experimentation. You take those tools that you learnt in Maths class and actually apply them to physically controlling something, its a real eye opener. Once you have been there its difficult to get the same satisfaction from any theory or algorithm. Doing stuff that has physical results is deeply satisfying and incredibly rewarding. Fast forward to today with the rise of making and hacking, I think this is why folks like to tinker and to hack, its simultaneously a creative, physical and educational exercise using 3 crucial parts of the brain. Adding opensource to the hardware equation engages a 4th part of the brain – social and community interaction, these in turn feedback,amplify and reinforce those creative juices.

In the earlier days of computing we tinkered and hacked a great deal both with the software and the hardware innards of computers. Eventually Apple and motorola, Intel and Microsoft came along and began their long journey of unification of computing singularity. As these companies pushed forward in their singular directions the other ideas and tinkering of computing fell away replaced instead by prescribed de-facto standardisation and convenient monoculture. I think we lost a great deal on that journey, the train was moving so fast that alternative concepts were simply passed like passenger-less stations on an express line. so keen were the drivers of these corporations to increase their revenue, that little thought was given to the question of whether it was the right direction or not, we were launched headlong into obscurity, conform or be dammed.

I think now however we are coming to the pinnacle of that ignorance, the train is slowing and the wheels are starting to rattle loose, the energy providing the locomotion is no longer sufficient to provide acceleration, rather we are now experiencing deceleration. But this isn’t a train wreck its more a darwinian, a fork in computing evolution that leads to a thousand dead ends, some of which will take years maybe decades to fizzle out. The latest greatest example of this is the iPad a minor fork of a struggling branch, one of the latter attempts to reinvent this evolutionary cul-de-sac.

At the same time the iPad reveals how this once firm evolutionary trunk is beginning to bifurcate, take at look at its innards to reveal ARM based processing from what was an embedded microprocessor IP company, very different from the end to end design and manufacture of Intel and motorola. yet the iPad is the ultimate in this same trunk of evolution, an inevitable device hatched to be used as an instrument of consumption. This is not a computer with which you hack or tinker, it is not a device for which you are expected to create, this is a consumption gateway to its vendor, the pinnacle of our computing evolution. This is what our best minds can come up with, a hands off, narrowly purposed sleek design, disguising the fact that underneath it is just pretty cash register for its manufacturer Apple. Pretty soon the rest of the herd will follow in their footsteps placing the final nails in the coffin of this popular computing evolution.

Obviously I am little sad to see it decay in this manner, but I am not surprised, it was inevitable, driven by a selfish 20th century industrial strategy, the result of a economic foundation whose days are numbered. But surely I hear you say “it has been huge success, look a the proliferation of personal computers, look at how little they cost, look at the bang for buck you get from these prolific PCs.” It is true, if population is a measure of success, then they are very successful. However throughout its ascent I have often wondered about those ideas that have fallen by the wayside, all of those missed opportunities, the many diverse possibilities that could have taken us down different roads. Maybe just maybe things may have turned out much more different even more successful and much more diverse. For example if we had taken a more concurrent approach to computing from both a hardware and software perspective rather than being blindly led by Intel’s clock race we might have ended up with a more evolutionary successful class of computing. Something much more robust than the current crop of high end PCs and servers, something more creative and enabling than the iPad.

But these are just whimsical what ifs, we cannot change the past, what is done is done. But we can invent our own brighter innovative future. This is a good time to reinvent a better more flexible computing, one not tied to clock races, corporate profits and monocultures, rather something more radical, computing that can effectively reinvent, reconfigure and replicate itself on the fly. Computing that is designed with real world concurrency, responsive,reactive and parallel like the real world, something not hampered by 20th century sequential thinking, a new computing of real and the physical rather than a virtual one. More importantly I want computing I can tinker and experiment with, something not confined to repetitive recipes, but one with infinitely combinational components with which I can assemble new ideas. Computing that connects to physical as well as virtual, computing which enables the internet of things, computing that enables me to make new things. Most of all I want creative, intelligent computing not stupid consumptive computing, I want 21st century computing for everybody and everything and all the things I cannot even envisage yet and I want it open completely open from the bottom up this time.

Who is with me for a better, brighter and more innovative future..

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11 thoughts on “If iPad is the pinnacle have we climbed the wrong mountain?

  1. Nice post!

    I’m with you in spirit, but I’m not sure that it’s as bad as you paint it.

    Arduino, PIC, and all the other little boards are still around, and the code that runs them is often FOSS.

    And there are all these little Make projects that are addictive and viral.

    Remember 10 years ago, when were all unsure than Linux would make it. And now it’s clear that high quality FOSS is here for good. Even in the biggest and nastiest corporations. (Erm… Goldman Sachs? Exxon?)

    I’ll predict that as hardware becomes software, it will also flourish in an open space

    And remember that our MacBooks runs on a derivative of BSD.

    Even if it is as bad as you say, the dedicated Survivors (in the 70s BBC sense) will route around the closed silos and do the Right Thing anyway.

    And for me, I’m not putting down $499 for an iPad for a long while. I’m trying to shun larger corps, and fund diversity. My next MacBook might be Kubuntu running on Lenovo??

    1. Hi Russ

      Good comments, maybe this is sounding a bit downbeat but actually the reverse is true for me it is finally changing.

      Actually its not about being ‘Bad’ its about missed opportunities, about could Have been better.

      And yes we got Arduinos and FOSS, but frankly I believe all of those would have happened sooner rather than later on an alternative and less narrow/closed path.

      I also believe the Internet routes around obstacles like this, as does Open in general, but routing around disrupt progress and can slow things down.

      OSS (and the Internet) started a journey for me back in 98, OSH develops that along with OSM, OSD moving forward which is the purpose of the post.

  2. Great Post.

    I’m sitting in a Portuguese bar 1500 miles from home. Just Skyped my sister to give her an update on my aging father.

    I started with Research Machines 380Z back in 1978, then ZX81s, BBC Micros and Spectrums. Learnt a bit of Z80 and 6502 machine code.

    Dropped out of computing for a few critical years in the early 90s, and never quite got the plot since BASIC lost the need for line numbers.

    Spent 10 years hacking PICs in assembly and then latterly discovered the joys of C on the Arduino.

    Man went to the moon in 1969 with the Apollo Guidance Computer – the size of a suitcase and weighed 70lbs. Same resources as an Arduino, but runs 5 times as slow – that’s 40 years of progress for you.

    Is the pinnacle of our achievements an iPad? If I’m here in this bar, doing this on an iPad n a year’s time and skyping my friends and family on the same device – then probably.

  3. We’ve all spent too much time tinkering. The iPad is a lightning rod for the industry’s failure to connect with more human beings, and give them the time to do rather than troubleshoot. Those that prefer code to companionship will always have a way to do it – as the commenter on Arduino and FOSS noted, the options have greatly expanded and improved.

    You write “rather something more radical, computing that can effectively reinvent, reconfigure and replicate itself on the fly.” I propose that all the tinkering pioneering spirit we have at our disposal be applied to make this “rather something more radical, COMMUNITIES that can effectively reinvent, reconfigure and replicate THEMSELVES on the fly. ” And that does not mean better Twitter clients.

  4. Thanks for your feedback Dave I appreciate your honesty

    “We’ve all spent too much time tinkering. The iPad is a lightning rod for the industry’s failure to connect with more human beings, and give them the time to do rather than troubleshoot”

    I am not sure that the assumption of allowing creativity is at odds with usability as you suggest, care to point me towards the evidence.

    There is good reason for ‘effectively reinvent, reconfigure and replicate ‘ most current operating systems and application stacks are incapable of allowing sane concurrent software development whilst providing good usability, maintenance and reliability. We are still stuck with applying sequel thinking to concurrent problems. The real world isn’t sequential , humans are concurrent, forcing ourselves into this unnatural pipe is limiting what we could really achieve.

    Why would communities wish to replicate themselves is not something I really understand, I prefer communities to bind,grow and learn.

    Oh and “Those that prefer code to companionship will always have a way to do it” is just an unfortunate view you have of some very creative folks, best keep that to yourself really, its not helpful.

    My point here isn’t the iPad itself, rather that it is represented as the current state of the art. it is the object sat on top of the pile, the latest and greatest thing that this industry has conjured into being. My point contrary to your comments is that we are capable of so much more creativity than the current industry offerings, Arduino and FOSS are examples of this as are many more to come. Limiting creativity IMHO is not the way to move this industry forward.

  5. One other response, it maybe that your comments are ‘tongue in cheek’ apologies if this is the case we still don’t have a ‘SarcMark’. But if it isn’t the case you seem to be saying that folks shouldn’t be able to ‘Make’ stuff, rather they should be spoon fed by the likes of Apple, Microsoft and Intel et al.. I think that would be a big mistake, limiting creativity in that manner has likely only one result, you end up buying everything spoon fed by a bunch of monopolists who’s interest may well not be linked to your own well being..

    Personally I think choice is the only real way forward, and the only way to get true innovation and value from economics.

  6. I think this is a great post.

    I think there are a couple of misconceptions. The iPad is not the pinnacle, for starters. Not should anyone be trying to position it as such. It’s a bunch of yesterday’s hardware and yesterday’s academic research slapped into a pretty box with a world-class marketing effort behind it. That doesn’t form the pinnacle of anything much, except the inevitable, tedious hype.

    Now, there are other objections. Objections about the fundamental principles of what we should be trying to achieve. A device like an iPad, and the other myriad of closed-platform systems to which we have become accustomed, offer an ever-decreasing return on the cynical corporate investment, as they are no sooner released as they are cracked. This is a battle the crackers will always win.

    The challenge for big corporations is to start thinking about how they can make money from increasingly open platforms – converting their internal inventiveness and entrepreneurship into streams of revenue that maximize the long-term value for the company, rather than seeking to lock in short-term profits.

    If they can’t solve this problem, then market economics will solve it for them, by replacing them with those who can and do adapt.

  7. The Bishops are drunk on beauty, burnning posterity on the pyre of lilith, for the owl in tree, her fruit is served. I’m a little bit more than a fanboy, fanboys Shill. I mean, you have Tony Hoare working at MS, hows that possible. The Industry cannot escape(support) its code base. IBM just killed PSnomore. Money dictates, instead of Ipad it’s really Newton. Job’s #1 entrepreneur of 20th century said it best “I don’t care if it’s nessasary right, as long as its successfull”. Business is War, survive live die. It is market, and who knows, maybe /users will find root. Would any one use an x86 to control the breaks on there family car. Or! How can the biggest richest software company in the world, build an operating system that bleeds /users/privates/personals from all to all, the suck souls into the darkest receases of the DARPA.

    No, everythings fine…
    shawn

  8. There are plenty of open and closed pieces of hardware and software around.

    Saying that anything current is the “pinnacle” is always going to be proven wrong in the future. Someone will make it better, faster, cheaper, smaller, whatever-er.

    If you do[n’t] like something, vote with your [lack of] cash to the vendor. It’s that simple.

    Hackable platforms which have ARMs in them, and solid communities include :

    – Maemo (soon to be merged with moblin into MeeGo) phones, such as the Nokia N900.
    – OpenPandora games console.

    These will always happen, as you don’t need _that_ many people before you can make something usable and start up a community, and they’ll fit a need/desire better than something mass-market.

    Finally, do you consider all “consumer” devices as being a disaster and the pinnacle of current tech? Plenty of closed platforms are that way because they work just fine and solve a problem people have, and past that problem *most people don’t care*!

  9. Pingback: Interesting Reading #521 – Flying car approved, Shape-Shifting Bot, 3TB Drive, DIY electric car and much more… – The Blogs at HowStuffWorks
  10. I have to link to this article in Wired as it sums up a a lot about Raspberry Pi and is very relevant to this post.

    regards
    Al

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