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Why does it matter that your iPad isn't a real computer?

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Previously, I explained why I object to calling iOS devices “(real) computers”. Matt Birchler, blogger and podcaster, was kind enough to link to my piece and write a response of his own.

Before you read on, I suggest you read Matt’s full post over at birchtree.me, my previous post, and this piece by Jason Snell for context. I suggest you also read this piece by Cory Doctorow, which I mostly agree with.

In his piece, Matt concedes the distinction between appliances and “(real) computers”, but argues that most people don’t care. I believe that. Yes, most people don’t care about the nuts and bolts of their “computer” and will happily use a locked down appliance if it does all they need. But I find that attitude itself problematic. Why?

If you’re reading this, you probably enjoy freedom of speech and unrestricted access to the internet. People like us take those freedoms for granted, and we’d fight anybody who tried to take them away (net neutrality, anybody?). Yet, in other parts of the world, there are people who live happy, fulfilled lives under conditions we would call “unfree”. I’m from Germany - specifically what used to be “West Germany” during the Cold War. Even now, some minority of people in East Germany will say they preferred life under communist rule. Most of those people aren’t ideologically communists - yet they were not just happy, but happier, in totalitarian East Germany. Personally I’ve lived in the People’s Republic of China, a totalitarian state by any reasonable definition - but I had a great time there. I felt perfectly safe, and despite the occasional inconvenience (mostly: needing VPN to access some websites) I was free to do anything I wanted without the government bothering me. Of course I was a foreigner, but the same was fundamentally true for my Chinese friends. But there’s a catch: we were lucky that “anything we wanted to do in China” did not include, say, political activism or campaigning for human rights. You can live an amazing, happy life in China as long as “anything you want to do” doesn’t bring you in conflict with the state. Otherwise, life may be hell. Had I been, say, a human rights activist, even as a foreigner, my stay may have been less pleasant. And “unpleasant” does not begin to describe the consequences for a Chinese citizen.

Ok, hold on. Am I seriously comparing iOS to a totalitarian regime?

Not literally, no. You won’t get thrown into jail if you want to compile code on your iPhone1.

But, yes, I do in fact believe that the freedom to use your electronic devices however you want is as precious as free speech. Our laws simply have not caught up with the pace of technology - and the tech giants, including Apple, mostly don’t want them to catch up, because the status quo is tipped in their favour.

Here’s a tweet response to Matt’s article:

It’s a witty tweet and I must admit I like the idea of a “driving appliance”. I hate driving. I have no interest in cars. I lack the skillset or inclination to tinker with cars or fix them. Hell, I haven’t owned a car in years and I’m not planning to either.

But while I like the idea of vehicles as appliances, I’m concerned about more dystopian developments in the automotive industry. You may have read that farmers can no longer repair some modern tractors without hacking them, because the software in those vehicles is locked down:

“Tractor hacking is growing increasingly popular because John Deere and other manufacturers have made it impossible to perform “unauthorized” repair on farm equipment, which farmers see as an attack on their sovereignty and quite possibly an existential threat to their livelihood if their tractor breaks at an inopportune time. […] The nightmare scenario, and a fear I heard expressed over and over again in talking with farmers, is that John Deere could remotely shut down a tractor and there wouldn’t be anything a farmer could do about it.”

The software in many modern cars is similarly DRM-encumbered and makes them difficult, impossible or illegal to fix (or modify) for tinkerers and independent mechanics. What this means is that the manufacturer has a de facto monopoly on after-sales service and repair. Good luck if they decide to overcharge you or if they won’t touch your car ten years down the road because to them it’s “obsolete” and they’d rather sell you a new vehicle ¯\(ツ)/¯.

Sound familiar? Apple has long been denying owners the right to repair or tinker with their hardware (of course many Android or PC OEMs do the same, which is equally despicable). With iOS, the same is true for software. You pay a small fortune for an iPhone - yet you can’t use it to do anything that’s not sanctioned by Apple - a locked-down bootloader and Apple’s app review process make sure of that. You like emulators? Too bad, Apple doesn’t. You want to download a torrent? Apple does’t think that’s wholesome. You’d like to import your own Music? Bad luck, unless you have a real computer with iTunes handy2. Got small hands and would like to arrange your apps within easy reach at the bottom of your home screen? Apple’s home screen won’t let you, and will suffer no competition from third party launchers. Maybe you’re adventurous and want to install Linux instead of iOS? Well, screw you. If iOS is good enough for Apple, it’s good enough for you3.

Apple deserve much credit for making computing accessible and frictionless for non-technical people. They are usually really good at coming up with sensible defaults for most people. I used to be one of those people, and I owe my interest in technology to Apple. But Apple does not, in fact, always know what’s good for you or me. Yet, on iOS Apple exercises such tight control that you have little recourse if whatever you want to do isn’t supported: you can hope that Apple will eventually come around to see things your way (good luck if your needs conflict with Apple’s), or you could switch to a different platform, such as Android. Which is an extreme step for most people.

Most people would agree that a country without freedom of speech would be a worse place to live - even if their personal life, liberty or livelihood don’t immediately depend on it. Yet, surprisingly few people seem to be offended when a consumer goods company prescribes what you can or cannot do with your “computer”. I prefer a world where we are empowered to do whatever we want with the things we own. Modify them, fix them, improve them, install anything we want on them, downgrade them. Yes, that includes the risk of breaking your device, and you may end up defacing the polished experience Apple pride themselves on. Such is freedom. And yes, I do think that even people who don’t currently feel restricted by iOS should care about this - just as every citizen in a democracy must stand up for freedom of speech; not because you or me rely on it day-to-day but to ensure that society as a whole will not lose it. More power to you if get a lot of value out of iOS. So do I. But we could have all the value they offer now, while opening up their potential to become “real computers” for those of us who want to exercise the freedom to tinker, to mess around, to truly own the device we paid for. I am concerned about a future where people who grew up on iOS may never know the freedom most of us experienced on a traditional computer. And it boggles my mind that some who do know that freedom would enthusiastically sacrifice it for stability, reliability or convenience4.

  1. Of course, you are already in jail ¯\(ツ)/¯. ↩︎

  2. Who knows for how much longer Apple will consider it necessary to provide that option? ↩︎

  3. The Mac is a more nuanced case here. Most of the OS is not open-source, so meaningfully modifying fundamental OS behaviour requires significant reverse engineering and will be brittle in the face of software updates. On the other hand, you can hook deeply into the system using very low level APIs and are not restricted by sandboxing rules. Of course macOS is also POSIX-compliant. If public APIs don’t do what you need to do, and you resort to using a private API (at your own risk) Apple can’tstop you, since the Mac allows installation of software from any source (coindicentally, if Apple ever took away this freedom, I would probably abandon the Mac). You may argue: an iOS developer can also sideload any app to their iOS device if they have acce ss to the source code. Enthusiasts can install various open source apps this way, such as a torrent client or various emulators. But that requires a Mac - it cannot be done on the device. It also requires a paid developer account if you want the provisioning profile to last for any amount of time. And you are still restricted to work within sandbox confines, as a non-privileged user. ↩︎

  4. Inevitably somebody will argue that Apple is locking down their devices to “ensure a good user experience” or to “avoid liability”. I hear that justification a lot, but it does not hold water. Providing a way to unlock the bootloader is all I really ask for - everything else can be taken care of by the community. That “switch” can be hidden deep within settings, behind a stern warning and legal disclaimer, to absolve Apple of any liability. If you’re the type of person who does not feel unfree using an appliance, just don’t flip that switch, and your pristine walled garden experience will not be tarnished. But as somebody who is willing and able to manage my iPhone as a true computer, I resent Apple for not giving me that choice. ↩︎