Cathode Tan - Games, Media and Geek Stuff
logo design by man bytes blog

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Why Doctorow Not Buying An iPad ... Is Not News

Oh wow, Cory Doctorow doesn't like the iPad - let me go and get my face of complete lack of surprise.

Of course Doctorow doesn't like the iPad. Of course he isn't going to buy one. The man, for one thing, hates iTunes. Anyone who hates iTunes is not going to buy an iPad. Here is a post from Cory back in 2006 about the evils of iTunes, and don't neglect to forget to read the comments as many point out some of the basic factual problems with Cory's argument. This is very, very common with Cory. Cory claims he "was a CD-ROM programmer at the start of my tech career" - but we need to be specific here: Cory often has a very tenuous understanding of technology. Remember that Little Brother has a main plot point where Microsoft gives away a new version of the Xbox for free, only to have it used to play freeware MMO's when kids aren't running around playing ARG's.

Or when he railed on iTunes because it sold Bob Dylans Modern Times with the music videos encrypted so that you couldn't burn the audio off them ... even though they were music video extras of older songs.

Or of course, my personal favorite - when he announced on Boing Boing that the PlayStation 3 would not play Blu-Ray movies. Let's take a step back on that one, folks. Sony had put serious bank on Blu-Ray as a format for the PS3. They had risked a higher price point on the console against two serious competitors. They were trying to drive a market not just for their new format, but to increase sales of their HD line of televisions as well.

Of course the god damned thing was going to play Blu-Ray movies. That was like ... the whole point. A better argument is that the device was better suited for movies when first released. You have to be completely blinded by your own argument to even begin to type such a post. This is a post that defies a basic understanding of both technology and how the technology industry operates.

So let's take one bit out of Cory's current complaint:

So what does Marvel do to "enhance" its comics? They take away the right to give, sell or loan your comics. What an improvement. Way to take the joyous, marvellous sharing and bonding experience of comic reading and turn it into a passive, lonely undertaking that isolates, rather than unites. Nice one, Misney.
-- Why I won't buy an iPad (and think you shouldn't, either)

So firstly, my brother and I bought many, many, many comics as kids - and we never really got into any kind of mass sharing commune like Cory describes. Yet we still loved them. This is another fine example of Doctorow manufacturing what he believes to be the order of things. Story? Artwork? Fun? No, no, these aren't nearly as important as being able to give away what you bought. Cory also neatly avoids the fact that his argument is true of the entire eBook industry or that market data about the amount people are willing to consume on the products pretty much pulls the carpet out from underneath him. Real consumers don't share Cory's desire for sharing everything. Real consumers weigh the benefits of being able to download a comic in a few seconds and have an entire library at your fingertips versus the cost of storing many years of collecting comics in your mom's garage.

Benefit outweighs costs. Marvel 1. Doctorow 0.

Doctorow continues to moan about how you can't take the thing apart (I've been taking computers apart and putting them back together again for something like fifteen years - trust me ... you aren't missing much), how Apple is Wal-Mart, and yada freaking yada. Let's jump to the end.

If you want to live in the creative universe where anyone with a cool idea can make it and give it to you to run on your hardware, the iPad isn't for you.

There's only a partial truth here. Firstly, the barrier of entry to developing an iPad app isn't nearly as bad as one might think. Get a low end Macbook. XCode is free. Cost into the developer program is $99 a year. It's not cheap - but it isn't as expensive as many other forms of development. Cory is, once again, willfully neglecting to tell you the whole story. Sure, when computers could only do 4-bit graphics and had 640K of memory, it was a lot easier to be a garage hacker and come up with neat application. These days the gap between the "person with the cool idea" and the "one who can make it" is vast. And sure, if you have managed to get past that very practical truth - you have to get past the App Store Review. But while the review is chaotic ... many, many, many apps make their way online.

And (another point Cory forgets) if you're developer, you can always use Ad Hoc distribution. Here's the description, right from Apple:

Share your application with up to 100 other iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch users with Ad Hoc distribution. Share your application through email, or by posting it to a web site or server.

And (yet another point Cory forgets) if you really want to start coding something interesting and don't want to bother with any of that - make a cool web application. Mobile Safari is a very sophisticated web browser, capable of many of the application design concepts with HTML 5 and the iPad neatly solves the biggest issue - dealing with the iPhone's tiny screen. You can do that with nearly any PC running Safari, and deliver it for free to the entire Internet. This is, for the record, my current development plan for anything not work related.

Doctorow does this every day. He has Boing Boing, he has his stories which are freely available online. There are even apps for his comics which you can get on your iPhone and iPad. So Doctorow disproves his own argument. He has cool ideas. He makes them. He shares them with all those poor iPad users.

And his closing statement:

If you want to write code for a platform where the only thing that determines whether you're going to succeed with it is whether your audience loves it, the iPad isn't for you.

Sadly, fair readers - that platform simply doesn't exist. There will always be hurdles between you and your audience, and even if every single one of them loves it ... you'll encounter those hurdles.

However, if you want to code (or write, or draw comics, or whatever) for a large and voracious audience - the iPad probably is for you. It arrived on Saturday and there have been one million apps downloaded by Monday. There were 250,000 eBooks sold.

The iPad is not going to change the world. But it does provide a very interesting market.


Thomas said...

Good points. I can only add that it would be nice if A) Mobile Webkit (any of its variations, including Android) offered an inspector and a console, and B) there were access to the file system. As it is, you can write applications via the browser for these platforms, but you still can't actually do it on the device, and debugging web apps on the device really sucks.

As someone who had an actual C compiler on his Palm III (and wrote working code with it), I miss the days when you could write and run on the go. I always hoped that the adoption of .NET on Windows CE would mean that you could do it there, but I don't think it ever came true. And on Android, there's shell scripting and the ability to write web apps on the device, but no way (at this time) to compile to binaries.

Josh said...

On OS X you can get access to the Alpine emulator - which offers a decent broad stroke of how the iPhone will handle it. And Mobile Safari has a javascript error log, but it is pretty basic (and no inspector).

But I forego the emulator these days. I cross-test in Safari and Chrome, and then test on the phone with the developer log on.

And I understand why they don't offer real filesystem access, but you do have a decent DB implementation in 5 these days. I'm currently using it for a robust offline JSON storage functionality which allows for nearly seamless online to offline functionality.

Thomas said...

I can use the Android emulator as well, but these days anything less than Firebug just feels primitive. My experience with Webkit's Inspector (via Chrome) is that it's better than IE, but it's not quite there.

DB storage is nice to finally have on devices, but it's helpful to be able to drop .json or .png files into a directory and access them during testing. I don't think it's really possible to throw away the filesystem yet, at least for developers (and quite possibly for users--non-heirarchical storage didn't scale well on classic PalmOS, if I remember correctly).

I think this is a fine incentive, however, for something like Bespin to really kick into high gear. People talk a good game about HTML5 web applications being just as good as their native counterparts, but have we reached the point where we can bootstrap a web application from itself? That'd be very cool.

Josh said...

Indeed - Firebug > Safari Inspector > (barely) Chrome Inspector. Rumor mill has it that Chrome is getting a Firebug extension, but I'm not holding my breath. I do still rely on Firebug to untangle some scenarios.

The HTML5 cache offers a hack backwards kind of filesystem - add PNG to web project, add to manifest, point browser and it's stored. But you're right, it's not even nearly the same as just juggling resources around and currently has curious notions of handling/updating elements.

I don't think web apps are equivalent to native apps in many ways, but I do see a lot of iPhone apps which probably could have been developed more quickly, more stable and more cross platform had they been. But I don't plan on creating that awesome Defender clone I was once considered in it :) Not yet at least...