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Why do moms have to choose between usability and openness?

by Alex in | | | | |

The Internet in 2001.

October: Apple introduces the first iPod.

October: In the wake of 9/11, the introduction of the USA Patriot Act dramatically expands the possibilities for online surveillance and introduces «                      »

A few years ago somebody broke into our office and stole a couple of new-in-box hard drives, a giant cake knife and a colleague’s little Cambodian Buddha. I figure the stolen Buddha pretty much guarantees the thief will get his karmic retribution, but that didn’t ease the sting of losing one other, deeply sentimental possession. Sure it was old, and not really functional, and I hadn’t used it anymore: I was still heartbroken to lose my first-generation, 5 GB scroll wheel iPod.

I got that iPod in October 2001, five days after the first iPod was released. By the time of its theft, that iPod’s functional role in my life had long sine been superceded by my iPhone, and an iPod nano. But I still treasured my original iPod for what it represented: The Internet’s permanent disruption and reconstitution of creative, content-generating industries like music. An unprecedented harmony of usability and aesthetics.The beginning of Apple’s ascension from underdog to top dog (in share price, anyhow). Physical proof of my chronic early adopter status.

What I didn’t yet appreciate was the underlying tension between these various aspects of my Apple-loving identity: in particular, between my appreciation for Apple’s product usability, and its contribution to disruptive innovation. With the arrival of the iPad last year, the simmering criticisms of Apple’s closed approach to platform development burst into all-out war, as the geek crowd took Apple to task for its highly controlled approach to the iOS App Store in particular. As Alex Payne wrote in a very thoughtful blog post:

The tragedy of the iPad is that it truly seems to offer a better model of computing for many people – perhaps the majority of people. Gone are the confusing concepts and metaphors of the last thirty years of computing. Gone is the ability to endlessly tweak and twiddle towards no particular gain. The iPad is simple, straightforward, maintenance-free; everything that’s been proven with the success of the iPhone, but more so…..The iPhone can, to some extent, be forgiven its closed nature….That the iPad is a closed system is harder to forgive… This is why I say that the iPad is a cynical thing: Apple can’t – or won’t – conceive of a future for personal computing that is both elegant and open, usable and free…..

The thing that bothers me most about the iPad is this: if I had an iPad rather than a real computer as a kid, I’d never be a programmer today…. Perhaps the iPad signals an end to the “hacker era” of digital history. Now that consumers and traditional media understand the digital world, maybe there’s proportionally less need for freewheeling technological experimentation and platforms that allow for the same. Maybe the hypothetical mom doesn’t need a real computer.

It’s this hypothetical mom who inspires me to defend both Apple and the open web. As someone who is both a mom and a geek, I feel for all the moms who want to make effective use of technology — whether to advance their careers, or plan the next family outing — but who don’t necessarily have the time to build their own home media server. I am told that some mothers spend up to 60 minutes a day interacting with their offspring in a screen-free environment, and I can see how that would really cut into your blogging, tweeting and scripting. Apple gives the busy moms of the world (in other words, all moms) a set of turn-key, highly usable technology platforms. If I were able to resist the temptation to hackintosh my way to a tinier Macbook air, or jailbreak my deprecated iPhone so my son can use it as a DIY DS alternative, or to simply limit myself to 3 Apple devices, then being an Apple user would be a definite time-saver.

Even as a geeky mom, Apple products have been life-changing. When I look back at twenty years’ worth of Apple purchases, I’m struck by the extent to which each Apple purchase was a solution to a previous tech pain point:

Annoying technology Apple technology
Massive, not-really-portable Zenith Supersport >> teensy Powerbook 170
IBM ThinkPad >> G4, purchased the day I realized I hadn’t enjoyed my work since switching to a company-issued PD
PC-using boyfriend >> Mac-using husband
KVM switch, 20 foot cable + 2nd monitor so I could use my G4 (upstairs) while sitting on my sofa (downstairs) >> lap-friendly iBook
Iomega HipZip MP3 player that could store 45 mins per disc >> 1st gen iPod with 5 GB storage (it seemed like a lot at the time)
waterproof swimmer’s radio that loses reception if your head is underwater >> iPod nano + waterproof swimming case
Microsoft Entourage for Mac >> Apple PIM apps (Mail.app, AddressBook.app, iCal.app)
Treo >> iPhone
Tivo that can’t record HD in Canada >> Mac mini + Plex
decent-quality Swiss wristwatch that nonetheless requires annual repairs to keep running >> iPod nano on watchstrap
Canon point+shoot digital camera with EyeFi card that turns out to be incompatible with this Canon model >> decent-quality camera build into iPhone 4
Windows-based HP Mini 1000 turned Linux-based Mini 1000 turned hackintosh that works pretty well but not perfectly >> iPad

Time and again, Apple has bailed me out of the trouble I create for myself as an early adopter. For moms (or anyone else) who is trying to fit early adopterhood into an overflowing schedule, the turnkey simplicity of Apple products comes as a welcome antidote to the endless time sink of making somebody else’s not-quite-there technology work almost well enough. Whether I’m in pursuit of an MP3 player, a usable net-connected camera or a smartphone that just works, Apple has rescued me from the frustrations of half-assed, poorly designed, not-really-functional solutions.

But as with any white knight, this rescue comes at a price. Feminist critiques of fairy tales note that the paradigm of damsel in distress, waiting for her rescue, helps consign women to passivity. Geek critiques of the iPad are stunningly similar:

  • [C]onsuming media is obviously a big deal for a whole lot of people. For creative people, this device is nothing. (Tim Bray)
  • Apple threatens to split computing into two markets, one for “traditional,” “real” computers, and another for passive consumption devices that try to play games without physical controls and let you read books, watch movies, play music, and run apps so long as you’re willing to go through the conduit of a single company. (Peter Kirn)
  • Apple is turning internet into a passive medium, feeding it to us with tools that let us consume instead of create. (Omar Rodriguez)

If you accept the argument that busy moms are falling into that trap of passivity in allowing Apple to “rescue” us from the burden of technology management, we’re paying the price three times over. We’re paying for it by turning into passive consumers rather than active creators (though as Ian Betteridge points out, this argument is most convincing if we believe that programming is the ultimate expression of computer-enabled creativity). We’re paying for it by consigning ourselves and our children to the cruel, limiting world of proprietary systems that constrain our ability to hack — to truly own — our own computers (unless these locked-down devices are merely the on-ramps for infants or others who aren’t quite ready for a keyboard). And of course, we’re paying for it by buying into a ridiculous self-image. As Cory Doctorow put it:

[It] seems like Apple’s model customer is that same stupid stereotype of a technophobic, timid, scatterbrained mother as appears in a billion renditions of “that’s too complicated for my mom” (listen to the pundits extol the virtues of the iPad and time how long it takes for them to explain that here, finally, is something that isn’t too complicated for their poor old mothers).

Moms — and every other Internet user who doesn’t have time to put tech maintenance at the top of their to-do list — shouldn’t have to choose between hassle-free passivity and high-overhead empowerment. As many of the critiques point out, there is no intrinsic reason that Apple couldn’t offer well-designed, highly usable products that are also open and extensible.

But Apple isn’t the only player with the power to create technologies that combine usability and openness. If more developers invested serious time in documentation, their web sites and software tools would be a lot more accessible. If techies put resources into design as well as programming, there might be open source tools that launch with more aesthetic appeal than you get from a bunch of grey-on-grey boxes. If hard-core geeks made a point of talking with moms, rather than relegating them to the mommy bloggers table, maybe they’d hear what matters to actual mothers rather than the imaginary mothers they’ve commissioned to raise the next generation of programmers.

What would they hear? Maybe they’d hear that the limiting factor in our kids’ technological engagement isn’t fear of technology, or Apple’s pandering to some stereotypical notion of low-tech motherhood, or even the fact that Apple products have glue not screws. In my case, they’d hear that what actually matters is whether the devices I hand them can I actually compete with the fully pre-fab, heavily branded experiences they get offered on a DS or a PlayStation or an XBox. Or that one of my biggest concerns is the danger of my kid fucking up my computer (a big fear if they’re using my precariously installed hackintosh, a minimal concern if they are using my sealed up iPad). Or maybe they’d hear that between my day job and  the 7 computers I keep running at home and oh yeah, 2 kids,  I have no time to figure out the best way to get a 4-year-old to use our “kid-friendly” OLPC Linux machine.

It’s easy to be ideological when you’re not the one handing a kid the nearest trouble-free device so that you can finish c0oking dinner, or write the memo that’s due tomorrow, or help an older sibling with her homework. And I’m actually a great supporter of the ideology that advocates for an open web rather than (more!) proprietary platforms. I just wish there were a way to support it that didn’t place a further  burden on harried moms.

First posted on April 25,2011
  • http://www.facebook.com/fiona.maccool Fiona MacCool

    Fantastic article that really captures my love and mostly hate relationship with Apple.

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