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On iPads, computing and powerlessness

A lot of my inner nerdiness comes from my dad, who has always had an interest in gadgets and technology. His interest, though, reflects some of the characteristics of his generation: it's not a passing interest in the latest fad, it's a lasting interest that takes in the details. My dad got into computers back in the days when home computers were a hobby, and they've remained just that, for him.

He loves to experiment and understand the computer from the inside out. He's always enjoyed tinkering with hardware, pulling his precious PCs to bits and putting them back together. He loves the software side, too: for him, spending weeks finding the right Windows driver for some new part, installing it, and getting it all working was all part of the fun. In more recent years he's enjoyed playing about with Linux (Mint and Ubuntu). He's a tinkerer.

All of which goes a long way to explaining the odd look on his face when he sees my iPad.

I can see he's torn: the technology impresses him, there's no doubt about that. He admires the iPad's speed and responsiveness, its flexibility, battery life and price. He's really, really tempted.

But he hesitates, and I can see why: he's spent the last 20 years buying computers that he knew he could tinker with. Every single bit of kit he's ever owned has been upgradable and fixable. If something goes wrong with any of that stuff, he will relish the chance to open it up with a screwdriver and mess around with what's inside until he's put it right. He loves doing that stuff.

The iPad, impressive as it may be in all other respects, robs him of all that. It leaves him powerless, and that's what makes him hesitate. He's worried that if - when - something goes wrong with the iPad, he will be powerless to do anything about it. The iPad is a sealed unit, so he can't dive in to fix dodgy hardware. The App Store is a sealed unit too. If - when - he encounters software problems, he will have to wait patiently for Apple or a third-party developer to fix them.

No-one likes the feeling of powerlessness. So although I know he's tempted, I can completely understand what holds him back. This is how consumer computing is going, of course. Sealed units are the future, but I hope they're not the only future. I've never shared my dad's interest in a computer's innards (I've never built one of my own), but I have a feeling that my son does. He's a tinkerer too, a builder, a maker. He is growing up with the iPad, and considers it just another household appliance.

Even so, thinking all this through brings me to the conclusion that to encourage my son's interest in the practicalities of computing, I should make an effort to expose him to the kind of computing my dad enjoyed; the do-it-yourself, fix-it-yourself kind.

While my dad toys with the idea of purchasing an iPad, I'm getting ever closer to buying a Raspberry Pi for my son to learn with. I think he will get a lot out of it, when he's old enough.