Talking tablets to you.

The words came down the Twitter wire.

Hey, @mrtopp ! Talk tablets to me!

This was not the first time the question has been posed to me. The answer was the same as always — I wondered why the tablet was an object of desire in the first place. The last time I asked that question, it came from my mother. She wanted to read books, so I suggested the Kindle. Why not choose a device designed with only the reading of books in mind, if reading books is your goal?

I am also reminded of Kyle Cassidy’s excellent piece about finding a function for his iPad. The recipient of a free iPad, he had no imagined function for it, and it became a glorified eReader.

Cassidy waxes on about it, and electronic books are truly fantastic things, but I cannot help but think that all experience and reports indicate that backlit devices are less pleasant to read from than e-ink, and the price difference — particularly if and when 3G connections are added in — makes the iPad quite a waste of money if you just read books.

Which is quite the digression, as Cassidy received his for free.

This request was coming from a different place, however — with summer travel planned, Seonaid is looking for a device to keep her in touch, and the world of tablets is less expensive than the world of annoying dongles for her bulky laptop. (An aside: Seonaid was surprised by this, I am not. The dongle market is probably saturated; people aren’t really shopping around for them in large quantities. Tablets are new, and flying off the shelves, and the phone companies are forced to offer cutthroat rates as a result.)

Generally speaking, my answer to “should I get a tablet” is “no”. They have no discernable purpose. They are large mobile phones — literally. They run the same applications (mostly) as their phone brethren, using the same interface and the same operating system. They do not strike me as something that somebody should need immediately.

On top of that, the devices are all first generation. The iPad II is not really a second-generation device, just Apple sticking a dual core chip in the first gen iPad, in an attempt not to be outclassed by Android devices. The iPad 1.5.

And Android? Blackberry? It’s first generation all around. If you’re on the fence, don’t buy one. First generation buyers who are not intentionally first generation buyers rarely feel happy about their purchase in the long run.

As far as usefulness goes — well, your iPad or Xoom cannot do anything an iPhone or Android phone couldn’t, though it ought to accomplish the same tasks more quickly, and on a bigger screen. For all the “it’s so fast!” comments I have seen, and all the photoblogs I have read that praise the latest photoshop-esque applications available for these devices, take a look at any tablet specification and tell me if you would even consider buying a PC with those same specifications.

If so, I have a computer from 2001 that I would like to sell to you.

Tablets have all the functionality and power of a mobile phone at present, and their major function (as far as this blogger has witnessed) is on the daily commute — to make it either less boring, or more productive.

The bottom line

If you are hell bent on ignoring our advice, and buying a tablet anyways, there are essentially two options:

Option 1: The iPad

First generation — not the iPad II.

Right now, nobody has a plan for tablets — or, at least, nobody has made a product that indicates that they have a plan for tablets beyond let’s make one of these tablet devices that seem so popular. Apple thought there was a market waiting to be tapped … and they were right. And so far, everybody is just trying to copy the iPad, mostly by making their own giant-sized Android phones.

So why go for an imitation? Until another company can provide something other than savings due to an inferior build, why go with anything else?

With the iPad II out (same product, new box), the first generation one can probably even be found at a pretty good bargain these days. If you need a tablet, you will have trouble finding a better product at a better price.

Option II: Android

However, if you’re thinking about your long-term tablet experience, Android is the way to go.

A tablet is a computing device, and a computing device is only as good as its software. There is no way that tablets remain oversized phones forever, and no way — in the near future — that they pull a laptop and become our new primary computing device. So where will it land?

I wouldn’t profess to know, but you can bet that if Android’s open-source development model doesn’t get there first, it will be there seconds after Apple and provide more versatility. Throw in the fact that you can run an Android device without registering it via your computer, and Apple’s well-known iPhone signal issues (what’s that I hear you say about 3G coverage?), and we are suddenly approaching a handful of reasons to prefer an Android device.

Which Android device, I couldn’t say. I’m not buying one, so specification measurement is not a game I care to play these days.

Keep in mind that every Android tablet currently on the market is just a copy of the iPad, so you’ll be better off in the short term with Apple. But the long-term bet, at least in this corner of the Internet, is on Android.

An evil app store

It turns out that Apple’s Application Store is evil.

We all know that Apple individually reviews applications, and rejects those that it deems too risque for its brand, or those that compete directly with native applications, or those that make money for their owners without giving Apple a healthy cut.

This causes long lead times for those applications which users are anxious to download, and for critical updates to applications. It leads to censorship (which is generally unwelcome). It allows Apple to hold publishers over a barrel and force them into deals that can only be described as “unfair”, given that they depend wholly on Apple’s stranglehold over a large portion of the market.

Users put up with this, however, because the process gives us a more secure device that an open marketplace cannot guarantee as neatly. Apple’s App Store is also incredibly convenient for users of their devices.

One of the many applications available on Apple’s devices is called Talking Carl:

Here at the Big Bad Blog, we are fans of Talking Carl, an application for kids.

The application consists of two features:

  • Talking Carl repeats what you say in a funny voice.
  • Talking Carl reacts to being poked.

Maggie loves it when people make funny sounds. And she loves it when people repeat what she says. Repeating what she says in a funny voice? Could not be more awesome.

So imagine my surprise the other day when I open what should be Talking Carl and see instead Talking Carl Challenge:

Apparently the developer and publisher had a falling out, and the publisher pushed an “update” through Apple which changed Talking Carl into Talking Carl Challenge. This was dutifully approved by Apple’s App Store, despite the fact that, rather than an update, it was a complete decimation of the product.

Furthermore, Maggie swiped at the screen and this happened:

Seriously, people? This is on an application targeted at children too young to read. And they are permitted to click on things and buy them.

Luckily, I found the original Talking Carl application, from a new publisher. But this suffers from a similar problem:

Annoying, but at least they have also added a “Baby Mode”, which removes the crap. We are still uncertain why one would toggle “baby mode” off, on an application for babies, where the non-baby stuff is advertising. But there you have it.

And then we see that we have it lucky. Apple regularly approves children’s games that have large in-game costs without any safeguards to them. These, of course, rack up huge bills for the parents.

One is forced to wonder how Apple thinks that a game in which a child can spend $99(!) on safari animals is OK to approve, while claiming that a web browser should be restricted to those seventeen or older.

The hypocrisy is evident, given that Apple requires a 30% cut of all in-app purchases.

And the security we believed we were receiving? Gone.

There is a difference between a malicious Android application that steals our credit card information and racks up $1,000 in credit card charges and a kid’s game for an Apple device that surreptitiously fools our children into spending $1,000 without realising it as part of “game play”.

The difference is that Apple purports to protect us from such behaviour, while Google does not. And Apple profits from the malicious applications, where Google feels suitably embarrassed and nukes them from orbit.

Apple’s screening process is supposed to be a trade-off.

What we trade in is evident. What we receive in return is not.

The morningn coffee, cats, moons and frauds

If you know your organic chemistry (or would like to know your organic chemistry), you should click on this link to see organic chemistry explained through the base unit of Internet expression: the cat.

(Painting created on an iPad, by Don Shank.)

Fox News is, at times, painfully funny in its ignorance. For instance, Bill O’Reilly is apparently unaware that tides are caused by the moon, and insists that it cannot be explained.

The BMJ, last week, accused Andrew Wakefield of fraud. Here at the Big Bad Blog, we have seen a number of comments of the “about time” sort — almost dismissing the fraud as old news. However, given libel law in the UK, here at the Big Bad Blog, we feel that this is huge. Fraud is a deliberate act, purposely misleading others for material gain.

It seemed (to somebody without detailed knowledge of the particulars) perfectly plausible that Wakefield was just a poor researcher who designed his experiment to confirm his pre-established conclusions, and the sort of person who cannot admit that they are wrong. That the BMJ feels confident that his work was malicious and not well-intentioned (though misleading and of poor quality) is certainly newsworthy.

The importance of jailbreaking

I read a lot of blogs, and follow a lot of people on Twitter. While the vast majority of these defy easy classification, for some the taxonomy is easy — they are friends, skeptics, comedians (whether they know it or not), science bloggers … and social media/technology “gurus”.

There is a reason why I follow this last group — while social media gurus spout no end of bullshit, as a group they are very tuned in to new technologies and have an excellent nose for finding interesting new technologies and news stories involving current technologies. This sometimes (but sadly not always) outweighs their tendency to be blowhards — they are too often self-proclaimed experts who lack any particular expertise. The requirements for being a social media guru are to be plugged into new technology (and its jargon) and to talk a good game.

So I was a little shocked when one of these gurus — “a consulting firm specialising in emerging technology & digital media” — wrote the following:

Apparently the fact that you can legal break your phone in the US is a cause for much jubilation, well at least for US geeks. How strange.

This particular guru is interesting, as they have a tendency not to take the popular viewpoint — for instance, they think that the Times paywall is a good idea. Because of this, they make for an interesting counterpoint to the constant wall of alleged gurus who do not appear to think for themselves.

Still, not understanding the importance of the decision allowing jailbreaking seemed quite odd to me — it was a tacit admission from this guru that they do not understand the issues involved.

As we are nothing if not kind and understanding know-it-all smartypantses here at the Big Bad Blog, we have decided to explain this geeky jubilation in three steps.

A criminal provision

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes circumventing a digital lock a criminal act. Until last week, the generally accepted interpretation was that any digital lock picking, from the use of a felt tip marker to a complicated hack was a violation of this law.

The penalty? Up to five years in prison and a $500,000 fine for the first offense. Double that for repeat offenders.

Just to be clear: If you chain your bicycle to a fence and lost the key, you can cut the chain. Your chain. Your bicycle. Not a crime.

However, under the DMCA (and the above interpretation), if you locked your mobile phone, forgot the code, and hacked it — up to five years in prison. That’s a digital lock you broke.

While it should have clearly delineated the difference between breaking a digital lock in the commission of another offense and breaking a digital lock to get at something you own, it did not.

Perversion of the law

We can see already that a law (however flawed) designed to enforce copyright online — the DMCA — actually applies outside the realms of copyright, and prevents the removal of digital locks for any reason.

With this in mind, several businesses made an ingenious move — they built a business model using the DMCA’s protection of digital locks as their basis.

Phones are locked into a particular provider of phone services, and it is against the law for the owner of the phone to unlock that phone so it can operate under other providers. This increases the cost of switching providers (as law-abiding users need new phones) and creates an artificial financial barrier locking customers in with their current provider.

But Apple is the master of this strategy. Their devices are digitally locked — phones, music players and tablet computers — but not just to a service provider. They are locked into a software package, and require the use of Apple’s iTunes software to operate. They are designed that new software applications can be loaded to them, but locked so that those applications can only be bought in one place.

Apple profits tremendously from this artificially limited competitive landscape, but a large portion of their customer base loses out, as Apple heavily censors what is available from their store.

These tactics appear to have the backing of copyright-protection legislation, despite the locks being ineffectual and there being no copyright to violate in this situation. Circumventing the locks was considered a crime in the United States, and still is considered a crime elsewhere.

The business strategy, however, is rooted in perverting a law meant to protect copyright owners.


Finally, as in the bicycle example above, it comes down to ownership.

If I lose the key to my bicycle lock, I am perfectly entitled to saw the lock of my bike. If I lock myself out of my car, I am perfectly free to call somebody to pick the lock on my door, break the window, or use some other means at my disposal to get into the car.

My bike. My car. My stuff.

by Darwin Bell on Flickr

I can break it, break into it, and use it how I see fit — so long as I am not committing some other crime by doing so. It might look suspicious, and result in a question or two from a police officer — at least, I hope it would — but it’s all perfectly legal.

Applying that same logic in the digital world, the question becomes who owns my iPhone?

If the answer is Apple owns my iPhone, then fair enough — I should not be allowed to break the locks within the device. I should also have to pay them if I put it in a blender. I would be destroying their stuff, after all.

But if I own my iPhone, then I should be able to do what I want with it, including downloading an alternate Operating System, or unapproved applications. So long as all this software is legally obtained, it should not be anybody’s business but my own. And I should not have to worry about going to prison for it.

This change is good

An all-out, take-no-prisoners digital lock rule was wrong. And rules that are wrong should be changed — this change simply makes breaking locks illegal only when the lock was protecting somebody else’s stuff. Which is how it is with analog locks.

It is hard to see this as a bad thing.

But this is not why the decision makes people happy — courts were not, after all, clogged with bizarre prosecutions under this law.

The decision makes people happy because it tears away the basis of the business practices of companies like Apple, and puts the right to decide what to do with hardware back in the hands of the consumer.

It allows jailbreaking to be something other than the domain of activists protesting against the status quo, and opens up a world of possibility to those who were willing to respect a law, even if it did not make sense.

In short, the jailbreaking geeks were not just geeks — many were making a conscious act of defiance (and risking prison, however faint that risk might have been) in response to a business practice based upon a perversion of law. And they won — this battle, anyways — and winning tends to bring happiness.