The Appliance Mentality

In the years leading up to 1984, computers were large, messy, complicated devices that only true nerds could love — let alone use. Several members of Apple II line — for example — shipped with schematics of the circuit board, inviting people with the knowledge to play around with different configurations and settings. The Apple I didn’t even ship with a case, power supply, keyboard or display.

With the Macintosh in 1984 that changed. The product — the first Apple machine headed up by someone other than Steve Wozniak — was unlike the computers people were used to at the time. It was small, quiet and self-contained. Even today, it’s tricky to pull one of those things apart to reveal the components tucked away behind the smooth beige plastic.

In the time period leading up the Macintosh, the term “appliance” was often used to describe the machine. Here is a section from Jobs’ introduction of the Macintosh:

Up until now computers have been like telegraphs. Over a century ago, when the telegraph was invented, people predicted the day when telegraph terminals would be on everyone’s desk. But telegraphs were too difficult to use. Then the telephone was invented. It was easy to use so everyone could use it. It brought people in touch with other people so it was useful to everyone. Soon everyone was using the telephone and the telegraph virtually disappeared.

The same thing will happen with personal computers. Only a fraction of the 235 million people in this country can use personal computers. But the Mac is different. Like the telephone, it is a desk appliance. It is the computer for the rest of us.

The iPad is the pinnacle of Jobsian thought — almost-closed software running on very sexy, closed hardware.

Cory Doctrow of Boing Boing says he won’t be buying an iPad:

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.


Gadgets come and gadgets go. The iPad you buy today will be e-waste in a year or two (less, if you decide not to pay to have the battery changed for you). The real issue isn’t the capabilities of the piece of plastic you unwrap today, but the technical and social infrastructure that accompanies it.

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.

Doctrow isn’t into the appliance mentality.

Additionally, a friend emailed me today saying:

The iPad is the latest inflection point in the transition of our culture to one based entirely on *consuming* things and never *creating* or *evaluating* them.

While that may be a bit of a stretch, it’s not that big of a stretch.

Doctrow continues with that train of thought, specifically with comic books, that used to be traded among kids easily:

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, marvelous sharing and bonding experience of comic reading and turn it into a passive, lonely undertaking that isolates, rather than unites.

Of course, not everyone sees the simplification of the technology — and the increased emphasis on content-consumption — as a bad thing. Joel Johnson over at Gizmodo wrote a brilliant response to Doctrow’s piece:

I’m glad the Apple ][+ came with schematics for the circuit boards. I’m glad it encouraged a generation of kids to tinker and explore. I’m also glad that I don’t live in the fucking ’70s and have to type in programs from a magazine anymore.

There is absolutely nothing about the iPad that portends the end of innovation, tinkering, programming, design. If that were the case, there wouldn’t be 150,000 applications on the App Store right this second. So what if you can’t make iPad programs on an iPad. I don’t complain I can’t make new dishwashers with my dishwasher.

The old guard has The Fear. They see the iPad and the excitement it has engendered and realize that they’ve made themselves inessential—or at least invisible. They’ve realized that it’s possible to make a computer that doesn’t break, doesn’t stop working, doesn’t need constant tinkering. Unlike a car, it’s possible to design a computer that is bulletproof. It just turns out that one of the ways to make that work is to lock it down. That sucks, but it certainly appears to be a better solution than design by committee gave us for the last couple of decades.

While Johnson’s argument isn’t that strong, it’s valid. Simple can — and often is — good.

TUAW’s TJ Luoma nails it:

My mom doesn’t care whether the iPad is held together with glue or screws. She don’t care about schematics. She wants it to work. Most of the time she does one thing at a time on her computer: email, with the window fully maximized; Word/Excel files, with the window fully maximized; looking at pictures of her grandchildren, with the window fully maximized.


The iPad is going to be great for those people who want a device that lets them do a specific set of things. It would work great for my Mom, although I’m not sure I can convince her to buy one. It will work great for me and for what I want to do. Cory shouldn’t buy an iPad, but Cory’s reasons for not buying an iPad only really apply to very small percentage of people. Those people are not stupid for not wanting to tinker with the iPad; they’re just not interested. They have other ways they want to spend their time.

The existence of gadgets like the iPad don’t mean the death of innovation. Gruber tells the story of Sam Kaplan, a 13-year old who has just submitted his second app to the App Store:

He’s 13 years old and he has created and is selling an iPad app in the same store where companies like EA, Google, and even Apple itself distribute iPad apps. His app is ready to go on the first day the product is available. Not a fake app. Not a junior app. A real honest-to-god iPad app. Imagine a 13-year-old in 1978 who could produce and sell his own Atari 2600 cartridges.

Somehow I don’t think young Mr. Kaplan sees the iPad as hurting his sense of wonder or entrepreneurism.

Part of this debate is moot. Most people don’t care about tinkering or DRM or closed software ecosystems. They care about slick, fast devices that easy to use. Thus, the iPad is going to do well — it’s not going to go away. The momentum behind it is phenomenal. No matter where you stand, that’s undeniable.

Personally, I find myself torn between the two points of view. I think the iPad itself exists between two eras, much as the original Macintosh did. It makes sense that people are fired up about it. It’s the future of computing we’re talking about here.