We are iPad. Resistance is (not) futile

Apple may have closed the iPad, but you don't need permission to open it.

The rules beg to be broken.

Bear with me; anecdotes are required.


iPad CoverageTwenty years ago, I was 13, and my father was not. He owned a 286, or perhaps a 386; I very much did not. For him, his computer was a functional employee. It did what he told it to do, slightly faster than a mathematical child prodigy, and he cared very little for what that manilla box chose to do when he was not around.

I, on the other hand, was far more interested in how that slab behaved, and the psychosis of that behavior. I wanted inside. And while I was forbidden to play with the computer, I was not forbidden to open an unlocked toolbox, find a Phillips-head screwdriver, and put it to work.

At some point, my unscrewing of the eyeless computer definitely became play for me. I opened the closed system, and have been working in, with, and around computers every since. I was yelled at soundly that evening — leaving the various parts scattered around the room and then going to a church youth function without reassembling those parts might have contributed to the problem — but it changed me.

Rules? Sure. I learn best when there are rules, because they beg me to break them and see what happens.


I was a Java and XML expert, and Jason Hunter was not. He hated SAX and DOM; I had been teaching them so long that I’d forgotten I hated them, too.

He didn’t like the rules. He thought the APIs were stupid. He was right. He convinced me to open the closed system, and JDOM was born. Nobody liked us in those early days; certainly not the W3C or Sun, who was busily endorsing SAX and DOM in their Java API stack.

Now, JDOM is a core part of a whole lot of Java and XML processing. There are quotes from Sun on the JDOM quotes page.


A lot of people are upset about how closed the iPhone, and now the iPad, are. Cory Doctorow — who I usually enjoy — wrote a lengthy piece about the evils of the iPad and its awful closed system.

He says, among other things, this:

The model of interaction with the iPad is to be a “consumer,” what William Gibson memorably described as “something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth … no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote.”

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.

First, I agree completely with Cory’s premise. I agree that Apple has taken far too much away. I agree that it is infantalizing to require us to send in the iPad to get its battery replaced. I agree that we should not have the App Store as a great gatekeeper in the sky cloud.

But, my gosh, when did developers ever need permission to break things? When did Steve Jobs become not just rule maker, but some sort of deity that actually prevented me from ignoring said rule maker, and doing whatever I could with my device?

Again, from Cory:

Then there’s the device itself: clearly there’s a lot of thoughtfulness and smarts that went into the design. But there’s also a palpable contempt for the owner. I believe — really believe — in the stirring words of the Maker Manifesto: if you can’t open it, you don’t own it. Screws not glue. The original Apple ][+ came with schematics for the circuit boards, and birthed a generation of hardware and software hackers who upended the world for the better. If you wanted your kid to grow up to be a confident, entrepreneurial, and firmly in the camp that believes that you should forever be rearranging the world to make it better, you bought her an Apple ][+. [Note: Link added.]

I’m sorry, but this is revisionist. While the Apple ][+ might have enabled a generation to follow, the hackers were well alive before they were handed schematics. Case in point, my earlier anecdote: I needed neither permission nor instructions from my father (or IBM) to break into that enticing bland metal case and tear out its guts. I just needed a screwdriver.

In fact, there is a vast difference between an intention for a consumer to not open a device and an inability of that device to be opened. Thankfully, iFixit didn’t get the memo that Steve would be upset if you broke into the iPad, and opened it within hours of release.

Then again, perhaps they did get the memo. They just chose to ignore it.

Mike Loukides, a fellow editor and one of the brightest minds at O’Reilly, said it well (in email):

… the iPad presents a challenge, and that’s a good thing. The argument is perverse (closed is good because it invites you to hack it), but I think it’s valid.

Yes, it’s perverse. And I, like Cory, am strongly for Apple getting out of my way. I’d like things to be more open. I’d like to have an easier means of sharing my comics, and my books, and my data. (I actually think that is the strongest portion of Cory’s argument, and one I firmly agree with.)

But, failing Apple’s permission, I’m sure there are many, many 13-year olds, unafraid of dad — or perhaps very afraid, but willing to pay the price — and they are picking up their screwdrivers.

Resist. Why not? It’s how creativity is born.

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