There’s been a predictable to-do in the tech world about the forthcoming “Mac App Store,” with which Apple aims to make buying, installing, and even launching applications on the Mac work the way it does on the iPhone and iPad. Draconian Control! Steve Jobs is Big Brother! Apple’s future is a Teva sandal stomping on a human face forever!
There are obvious rebuttals to this—Apple has explicitly said that this won’t be the only way to put an application on a Mac (and indeed, designing a system that enforced that while still maintaining compatibility with all the existing Mac applications would be all but impossible), an awful lot of the bitching about the “closed nature” of iOS devices conflates applications with data (sometimes deliberately), and in any case Apple isn’t the only company making computers and phones—unless you think Apple is so good that everyone is bound to do what they do, just buy something else, and if you do think Apple is that good then stop bitching for Christ’s sake.
But wait! Users and developers may like this system so much that everything else falls by the wayside. That other companies will adopt this model. That in the long run the market will speak, and it will say, “Hey, this works. Let’s do it. Sorry, everyone who liked freedom and openness and apple pie and puppies. American computer users prefer fascism!”
Yeah. The reality is likely to be a bit short of Orwell.
There’s a phrase popular with futurists: ubiquitous computing. The premise is that computers will worm their way into our lives so much that they’ll be everywhere, and that we’ll reach a tipping point where this profoundly affects all parts of our lives in ways that we don’t even realize, in much the same way that electricity did. Looking around my apartment quickly, I see an iPhone, a programmable coffeemaker, a microwave, a DVR, a DVD player, an internet-capable game console… you get the point. Yet other than the phone and the Playstation we don’t even think of them as computers, and those two devices are quite restricted by design compared to a Mac or a PC.
Which makes them a lot like the ubiquitous computing of science fiction. Computers are everywhere in sci-fi, but they’re tricorders and PADDs and holographic heads-up displays, and characters only say “computer” when they’re directly asking one a question. The concept of computer has radically changed in that vision in a way which is much more than giving the navigation system the pleasant voice of Majel Barrett. We know this because if it hadn’t, a quarter of the fucking Enterprise crew would be the IT department.
Love them or hate them, this is something that Apple—more than any other company—fundamentally gets. They want a computing experience more like the appliance experience. If this vision “wins” that doesn’t mean there’s no place for geeks; there’s still a need for programmers and web developers and sysadmins and UI designers. But the computers that most of the public increasingly interfaces with will be computers that are not designed to be directly programmable.
And I’m pretty sure this vision will win. For the vast majority of users the model of the app console—think game console, but not just for games—is simply better. The iPad is an app console, and the Macs of next year will be, too. And the PCs of the year after that. (Any PC gamer who’s purchased things from Steam is already arguably using this model.)
Historically, most geeks—including me—have thought that people who use computers should learn enough to be their own tech support. We did, and it doesn’t seem that difficult to us, and it’s kind of infuriating that so many of the questions we’re badgered with sound fundamentally ignorant: people who don’t understand what the difference between memory and hard drives, can’t figure out how to launch an application if it doesn’t have a dock icon or a desktop shortcut, and can never find the document they saved last week because they don’t have the faintest clue what a directory is.
The model we’re moving toward, though, is premised on the idea that computers shouldn’t require routine tech support. Again, look back at game consoles: an Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 is a fully programmable computer with networking capability, offline storage, removable media, the whole shebang, yet all of that is invisible to the user. What file system does a Playstation use and what directories does it put your downloaded games in? The correct answer is: “Who gives a shit?”
And if what you do with a computer is spreadsheets and flow charts and word processing documents and slide presentations, web browsing and media watching and game playing, even recording music and editing photographs and writing text adventures, there’s an excellent case to be made that you should not have to give a shit about any of that, either. But right now—no matter what platform you’re using—you kinda do.
The silver lining for us Geek Luddites, though, is that there’s very little reason to think those of us who do want to get under the hood and tinker with shit are really going to be stopped. At the turn of the last century, you pretty much had to be your own mechanic if you owned a car; now, a lot of drivers probably can’t change their own oil. That’s okay. They don’t have to. If they want to, though, they can learn. In fact, if they want to, they can get under the hood—literally—and tinker with all sorts of shit. Even for today’s excessively high-tech cars there are whole communities of “enthusiasts” doing all sorts of amazing nutso things.
Likewise, there will always be some way to program even the most console-eist app console that comes along: app consoles need programs. In fact, it’s much more important to computer/console makers to ensure this access than it is for car manufacturers. Even the iPad, for all the heat it takes on this front, isn’t that difficult for someone to write programs for.
So am I comfortable with the future I see coming? Mostly, yeah. As I’ve mentioned before, what most people want is not open source (sorry, Andy Rubin), but open data. There’s very little I can’t play or view (and often—gasp—create or edit) on the “closed” iPad. And I don’t think my ability to program—nay, even hack—my computers is going to be nullified.
And, hey, if I’m wrong, there’s always Ubuntu.