Scaling the Walled Garden

There’s a trend underway in personal computers that leaves me greatly conflicted. From a user experience perspective, it’s great that so many devices “just work.” Apple’s iOS devices are just short of magical in their simplicity and functionality — surely that’s a good thing, right? But there’s another aspect of user experience that’s been lost along the way, and that troubles me. I’m talking about understanding how our devices work, even just a little. I think there’s something valuable in comprehending a bit about what’s going on in the guts of our electronics, and I fear we’re losing that connection quickly.

I’ve been a Mac user for going on 25 years, almost all of that time acting as my own IT department. I’ve never been afraid to crack open cases and replace hard drives or upgrade RAM — even on an old Mac SE that required me to snip a resistor off the board to upgrade from 2 Megs to 4. I like to understand the tools I’m using, it somehow gives me a closer connection to the work I do with them. I like to have an understanding of the file system and what all those things with weird extensions are doing in the libraries. I like to decide when a file should be saved, and where and how. I like to be in control of the tools I’m wielding.

And that’s where the conflict comes in. I’m writing this on an iPad2, an iOS device, which by definition hides file structures, autosaves everything, and makes any kind of upgrading or exploration under the hood all but impossible. The trouble is, I really like the simplicity and functionality of the iOS devices. They’re genius. But I never, ever feel like I’m in complete control of anything running iOS. It’s for this reason that I most definitely would not be happy if my desktop computer functioned the same way as this iPad does, dumbing down my understanding of it. But, that appears to be the future that Apple envisions, if Lion is any indication. For the first time in my career, I’m starting to wonder if the Mac and I might have to part ways, somewhere down the road.

While it’s one thing for somebody like me to whine and moan about changes that are unquestionably improvements for the vast number of users, I do wonder about what the future holds for the next generation of youngsters coming along for whom all computing devices are sealed boxes that “just work.” I think that open source hardware and software are so interesting right now as an antidote to this “walled garden” approach to computing. If not for open source microcontrollers like the Arduino, the coming soon Raspberry Pi and the Linux OS, where would young, curious minds turn to learn about hardware and programming in a hands on way? They need to have a chance to look beyond the magic, to pull back the curtain and understand what makes their devices work. It’s vitally important to continue to have these kinds of opportunities available because it’s these kids who like to take things apart, to build things and to generally get their hands dirty under the hood that will be our future developers, engineers and designers. We’re going to need them.

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