Also in Slate, Farhad Manjoo says you don’t need an iPad—but once you try one, it’s hard to resist.
In 2006, professor Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard Law School predicted that over the next decade there would be a determined effort to replace the personal computer with a new generation of “information appliances.” He was, it turned out, exactly right. But the one thing he couldn’t forecast was who would be leading the charge. How, indeed, could anyone have guessed that Apple Inc., the creator of the personal computer, would lead the effort to exterminate it?
There are many interesting things to be said about the iPad. It might save publishing, television, and journalism. It might overrun Sony and Microsoft in computer gaming.
It also might turn Americans back into the passive couch potatoes they were in the 1950s. But perhaps the greatest story is of Apple itself, and the degree to which the iPad’s design does battle with the company’s own history and the computing legacy of its co-founder, Steve Wozniak.
Apple is a schizophrenic company, a self-professed revolutionary that is closely allied with establishment forces like the entertainment conglomerates and the telecommunications industry. To understand this contradiction we need to look back to Apple’s origins. Let’s go back to a day in 1971 when we find a bearded young college student in thick eyeglasses named Steve Wozniak hanging out at the home of Steve Jobs, then in high school. The two young men, electronics buffs, were fiddling with a crude device they’d been working on for more than a year. That day was their eureka moment: Apple’s founders had managed to hack AT&T’s long-distance network. Their invention was a “blue box” that made long-distance phone calls for free. The two men, in other words, got started by defrauding the firm that is now perhaps Apple’s most important business partner.
The anti-establishment spirit that underpinned the blue box still gives substance to the iconoclastic, outsider image Apple and Steve Jobs have long cultivated. Back in the 1970s, the inventors reinforced their company’s ethos with their self-styling as counterculturals. Both men had long hair and opposed the Vietnam War. Wozniak, an inveterate prankster, ran an illegal “dial-a-joke” operation; Jobs would travel to India in search of a guru.
But the granular truth of Apple’s origins was a bit more complicated than the simplifying imagery suggested. Even in these beginnings, there was a significant divide between the two men. There was no real parity in technical prowess: It was Wozniak, not Jobs, who had built the blue box. And it was Wozniak who conceived of and built the Apple and the Apple II—the personal computer that would be unquestionably the most important Apple product ever and arguably among the most important inventions of the latter 20th century. Jobs was the businessman and the dealmaker, essential as such, but hardly the founding genius of Apple computers, the man whose ideas became silicon and changed the world. That was Wozniak.
Wozniak’s Apple took personal computing, an obscure pursuit of the hobbyist, and made it into a culture-wide phenomenon, one that that would ultimately transform not just computing, but communications, entertainment, business—in short the whole productive part of American life. And in doing so he made the ideology he followed—”open computing”—America’s ideology. Of course, such an idea didn’t originate with Apple; it was at least as old the ideas of Man-Computer Symbiosis in the 1960s. By the 1970s, it was an orthodoxy of amateur societies, like the Bay Area’s Homebrew Computer Club, where Wozniak offered the first public demonstration of the Apple I in 1976.
Wozniak’s design was open and decentralized in ways that still define those concepts in the computing industries. The original Apple had a hood, and as with a car, the owner could open it up and get at the guts of the machine. Although it was a fully assembled device, not a kit like earlier PC products, Apple owners were encouraged to tinker with the innards of Wozniak’s machine—to soup it up, make it faster, add features. There were slots to accommodate all sorts of peripheral devices, and it was built to run a variety of software. Wozniak’s ethic of openness also extended to disclosing design specifications. In a 2006 talk at Columbia University, he put the point this way: “Everything we knew, you knew.” To point out that this is no longer Apple’s policy is to state the obvious.
While a computer you can modify might not sound so profound, Wozniak contemplated a nearly spiritual relationship between man and his machine. He held, simply, that machines should be open to their owners and that all power should reside in the user. That notion mattered most to geeks, but it expressed deeper ideas, too: a distrust of centralized power and a belief, embedded in silicon, that computers should be tools of freedom.
In 2006, when Wozniak gave his talk at Columbia, I asked him what happened with the Mac. You could open up the Apple II, and there were slots and so on, and anyone could write for it, I said. The Mac was way more closed. What happened?
“Oh,” said Wozniak. “That was Steve. He wanted it that way.”
Apple’s origins were pure Steve Wozniak, but the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad are the products of the company’s other founder. Steve Jobs’ ideas have always been in tension with Wozniak’s brand of idealism and the founding principles of Apple. Jobs maintained the early, countercultural image that he and Wozniak created, but beginning with the Macintosh in the 1980s, and accelerating through the iPhone and climaxing with the iPad’s release this month, he has taken Apple on a fundamentally different track, one that is, in fact, nearly the opposite of the Wozniak vision.
Jobs believes in perfection, not muddling through. He would seem as much at home in Victorian England as behind the counter of a sushi bar: a man who believes in a single best way of performing any task and presenting the results. As one might expect, his ideas embody an aesthetic philosophy as much as a sense of functionality, which is why Apple’s products look so good while working so well. But those ideas have also long been at odds with the principles of the early computing industry, of the Apple II, and of the Internet. The ideology of the perfect machine and open computing are contradictory. They cannot coexist.
As Wozniak told me in 2006, it was the Macintosh, launched in 1984, that marked the first departure from many of his ideas as realized in the Apple II.To be sure, the Macintosh was a radical innovation in its own right, being the first mass-produced computer to feature a “mouse” and a “desktop,” ideas born in the mind of Douglas Engelbart in the 1960s and that had persisted without fructifying in computer science labs ever since. Nevertheless the Mac represented an unconditional surrender of Wozniak’s openness, as was obvious from the first glance: There was no hood. You could no longer easily open the computer and get at its innards. And only Apple stuff, or stuff that Apple approved, could run on it (as software) or plug into it (as peripherals). Apple thus became the final arbiter over what the Macintosh was and was not, rather in the way that AT&T at one time had sole discretion over what could and could not connect to the telephone network.
Now in 2010, the iPad takes the same ideas to their logical extreme. It is a beautiful and nearly perfect machine. It is also Jobs’ final triumph, the final step in Apple’s evolution away from Wozniak and toward a closed model. The main, and most important, concession to openness is the App Store, a creation that shows Jobs learned something from Apple’s bitter defeat by Microsoft in the 1990s. You cannot run software Apple does not distribute itself. You cannot access the file system unless you hack the machine. You cannot open the hood; indeed, the machine lacks any screws. I compared my iPad to various appliances around the home—coffee machines, toaster, cameras—and the only thing comparably sealed was, well, an iPod. The iPad has no slots; its only interface is an Apple-specific plug. Oddly enough, this all means that the iPad is not a machine that Apple’s founders, in the 1970s, would have ever considered buying.
But this may not matter for many people, for the iPad is handy tool for getting well-produced content from the industries that make it. And even if it doesn’t do everything a computer does, it still does most things. Still, it is meant for consumers not users, and as such has far more in common with the television than the personal computer. It is not meant for the Homebrew Computer Club—for tinkerers, hobbyists, or for that matter, creators.
Steve Wozniak has said that he pre-ordered three iPads, two for himself and one for a friend. This is a testament to his incredible good nature and his loyalty both to the firm that marginalized him in the 1980s and to a friend, Jobs, who refused to write a foreword for his memoirs. Yet somewhere, deep inside, Wozniak must realize what the release of the iPad signifies: The company he once built now, officially, no longer exists.