Tinkerers are smarter than you

Sun 31 January 2010 by Kevin van Haaren

Lots of words going around about how the iPad is the beginning of the "tinkerers sunset." In other words the apparent locked down nature of the device is going to bring an end to the tinkering people do with thing like their computer.

I call bollox. When I was a kid I began tinkering on one of the most open systems around, the Apple ][+ at high school, then the Apple //e at home. Those systems cost $2000+ dollars. My high school, a private catholic school, had around 7 Apple's, a handful of PET computers, and some weird mainframe in the corner. A handful students were tinkerers and sat around in the computer room over lunch and after school. There were occasional fights over who had a computer because there weren't enough. Whoever didn't get one ended up at a desk either hand marking up code, or reading the fucking manuals.

Now we have a $499 device (equivalent to a $250 device in 1984). I'm sure many schools, especially those expensive private ones, are looking to give one to every single kid. Resource limitation of 7 computers -- gone.

The Apple //e had one language available for free. Applesoft (or BASIC). When I wanted to learn a new language, 6502 assembler, i had to pirate an assembler package I couldn't afford.

Now, FOR FREE, Apple will give you the entire development environment for both the Mac OS X and iPHone OS. This is the same environment Apple themselves use to produce applications for the Mac and the iPhone. So far the current enviornment is WAY better for tinkering than when I was a kid.

Now we get to the part the death of tinkering claimers is bring about the death of tinkering. If you write an iPhone app you can't "officially" load it on your iPhone for free, you can only run it in the simulator. You need to be a paid member of the Apple iPhone Developer Program. Cost is $99 a year ($50 in 1984). Once you're a paid member you can load ANY program you write onto your own device. Apple does not approve apps you are loading on your phone, just the ones you want to make available via the iTunes App Store.

Except, you can jailbreak your iPhone. Jailbreaking means getting rid of the Apple requirement for apps to be signed by Apple to run (it's different from unlocking, unlocking an iPHone means allowing the celluar components to work with other cell providers.)

Just as I was willing to pirate an assembler package to learn a new language, any tinkerer worth their salt is going to know how to jailbreak their phone and skip the whole Apple approval process.

Is jailbreaking legal? Not completely. The DMCA copyright extensions would provide Apple a way of trying to legally shut the practice down. To me it's a lot more ethical than the pirating I did. I personally oppose the DMCA extensions and would love to see them repealed. But at the same time Apple hasn't enforced these provisions. They've not shutdown Cydia the app store for jailbroken apps. They haven't sued a single jailbreaker (more than the RIAA can say.)

Even if Apple starts hammering down on jailbreaking they won't really have any more affect than the anti-pirating measures companys put in place to prevent what I did.

I GUARANTEE you, put an iPad or iPod touch or iPHone in the hands of every teenager at a school and you will have tinkerers. Damn good ones. Ones that will learn to circumvent your locks. Ones that are smarter than you.