Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Get out of jail free

Now that I'm here, more or less installed in my place in Täby, I have of course turned my attention back to the most important things in life, those topics which don't change simply because one moves to a new continent or begins a new chapter in life. Yes, I am back to analyzing the cultural impact of electonics.

Awhile ago, when we realized that we'd probably prefer not to bring our desktop computer to Sweden (a bit of a shame because it was a nicely-configured box which was serving us well) we decided to get another laptop. After much hemming and hawing, initially favoring windows machines because of their prices, Brett settled on a white Macbook, nearly identical to the one I bought last fall. In large part this was because of an available deal on Adobe's CS3 suite, but the proposition was also helped along by a back-to-school iPod giveaway.

So, earlier this summer, we found ourselves proud first-time iPod owners.

I'd avoided the iPod phenomenon for a few reasons: first, it was an expensive toy, and I generally enjoy hearing the sounds from the world around me. I tend to read while on public transit, and listening to music in addition makes one a bit too isolated for my taste. Second, it just seemed to popular. But this dabbler in HCI could hardly resist the temptation of getting a $300 toy for free -- the iPod touch, running the same OS as the iPhone.

Nor could I resist spending the $10 for the firmware 2.0 upgrade, allowing me access to the App Store, with a good selection of quality applications, including some solid free ones.

The iPod Touch in an impressive piece of hardware. It's even been handy while I was running around Stockholm without good internet access. But there are some serious caveats.
  • Sure, you can render websites just fine, but you can't download files.
  • No cut & paste. This is inexcusable on a device with this much power.
  • No terminal app -- not even one that would only let you log in to remote devices.
  • In fact, no real "root" access to your system.
It's a shame, because the iPod touch (and particularly the iPhone) are powerful, well-designed pieces of hardware that could really be fully-functional computers. But the artifical restrictions imposed by the iTunes / App Store system handicap them to the point where they are mere toys.

But to realize this yourself, you need to jailbreak your device and see what you're missing. The best post-jailbreak features are actually low-level OS features that should have always been included on these devices: a terminal app, openssh (for logging into your iPod), netatalk (an AppleTalk server, so you can share files to it) and an extended preferences app, BossPrefs.

The jailbreak is free, and most of the stuff I just mentioned in GPL software.

Why do we have to hack our way into the devices we own? We're really just adding back in functionality that's been arbitrarily removed. Listen, iTunes, is a fine piece of software; it's got its detractors, but it's largely adequate. However, as a software platform, it sucks. I don't want to live in an iTunes world -- I want to live in the world where I have root access to my devices, and I can hack or break them to my heart's content. I also want to have the things that I've grown accustomed to, like cut & paste and, uh, the ability to save files.

So let's just do a little comparison, between the iPod Touch and the Nokia N810. The Nokia is basically an overgrown cell phone, running a modified version of Debian GNU/Linux. It's got a slide-out keyboard and a pen-touch screen. It's got GPS, and 2gb of storage. It's got wireless and an ARM processor, similar to the iPod Touch. The storage is expandable with a MicroSD card, so let's just say that the hardware is basically similar, with some interface differences.

So what is the difference? With the Nokia, you get less "sexy" factor, and instead, you get the ability to save files, cut & paste, and a terminal with root access. You basically get a PC in a small form factor. This blows the jailed iPod out of the water in terms of utility; a Blackberry does the same for the iPhone.

So why do we need to download a sketchy hack just to get this basic functionality? The only answer that I can imagine is that the Apple Touch devices are for entertainment only; Apple has no interest in creating a device with any real utility. Apple's profitability has come from one of the most vapid, useless products ever (the iPod) and this is the future that they want to pursue.

Apple: don't forget us, the power users and hackers. Listen, Steve: there is a reason that the Touch was my first iPod, and it wasn't because I need bigger cover art.
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