Computers, iPads, and other computers

An interesting take by Matthias Breuer on what we call a “computer” these days:

[W]hat makes a device a “real computer” is not its day-to-day versatility. It is the ability to write your own apps and even extend, modify or replace the underlying operating system on the device itself – which requires a degree of access to the system that iOS simply does not provide. Sure, the iOS App Store may have an app for whatever you need to do. That’s convenience. But on a “real computer” you could write your own code, that hooks into any level of the system, to do anything you could dream of doing. That’s power. You may argue that your typical user (or even very technical users) may never avail themselves of this power. That’s undoubtedly true, but beside the point. It’s irrelevant to the semantics of a “real computer” whether any given user has the skill to fully use it or the inclination to learn. What matters is that the potential is there if you want it.

This piece was written in part as a response to my What is a computer? article from last week, and while I think Matthias has an interesting argument, I don’t feel like this addresses the argument I made in that piece, it just changes some nouns.

The piece talks about the separation of “general purpose computers” and “computer appliances.” Windows, macOS, and Linux computers are classified as “general purpose computers” and iOS and Android computers are classified as “computer appliances.” If we accept those classifications, them my argument changes to “general purpose computers are becoming less and less compelling options for most people and computer appliances will continue to grow.”

I personally don’t really care about this distinction because it turns a practical discussion of what actual people will buy to accomplish their tasks into an esoteric debate about the meanings of very specific words.

Getting hung up on people calling an iPad a computer because you can’t unlock the bootloader, can’t access the file system with root permissions, can’t run Xcode on it, and can’t install Linux on it are arbitrary benchmarks that only impact a tiny minority of people. These are things that I would guess 99% of PC people never do, and that 98% of people didn’t even know they could do. Not to say that those things are not useful to some, but if you’re trying to help someone decide whether to buy a Lenovo laptop running Windows or an iPad Pro running iOS, the arguments above will have no impact on nearly all computer purchasers.

To argue about the name we give these computers is to have a totally different conversation, and I’m not entirely sure what it accomplishes. If a person has $1,000 to spend on a new computer, I’m 99% sure that issues of bootloaders and root access won’t come up because they’re not something people even want in a computer in the first place. The few people that do want or need those features will continue to purchase “general purpose computers” but most people will realize that they don’t need those features and they never needed them. That is not besides the point, that is the entire point.


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