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iPad-only is more than the new desktop Linux

“You like the iPad because it’s simple. But if you’re using the iPad as your primary computer, you may just like it because it’s a challenge.”

Watts Martin hits a nerve writing iPad-only is the new desktop Linux.

Martin says people who use only iPads for their computing do it because it’s a challenge.

He says: “Figuring things out is part of the allure”. This, he says, is just like things were, maybe they still are, with desktop Linux.

When desktop Linux roared

Remember desktop Linux? Kids ask your parents. It was huge in the late 1990s and peaked around the year 2000.

At the time many thought Linux would replace Microsoft Windows for day-to-day desktop computing. Although a handful of organizations imposed it on their workers, it never got beyond being a fringe option. Yet it shook Microsoft and had a widespread effect on commercial PC software.

Desktop Linux was hard work.

There were practical reasons to use it. Linux needed fewer computing resources, it would work well on older, cheaper computers. Eventually Microsoft responded by trimming the fat on its software.

Free and open

Linux fans would find political or philosophical justifications for choosing a more difficult personal computing path. They’d talk about it being free, about how it was open source and so on.

One common idea at the time was that Linux forced users to get down and dirty with how computers worked at a basic level. This,  the theory says, increases people’s understanding of computing. The knowledge would, in turn, make them safer and more productive.

This idea sounds great until you realise it takes a day to recompile an obscure but necessary piece of code that everything depends on.

Freedom has a price

While the freedom to tinker aspect of Linux could be useful. More often it was a terrible time sink. You could spend hours or days down software rabbit holes.

Desktop Linux was more difficult than Windows or Apple’s operating system. Maybe it didn’t challenge developers so much. They spend all day using esoteric commands and compiling code. But for those of us with little coding experience, desktop Linux was challenging.

At times it was an ordeal.

Martin writes:

Don’t deny it, folks who prefer the iPad to the Mac or PC: you like the challenge. It was awesome to check out and edit files in my company’s Github repo and make a pull request, all from the iPad.

Myke Hurley made an observation on his Analog(ue) podcast that even if you could prove that a given task was easier on the Mac, he’d still rather do it on his iPad because it’s just more fun. I absolutely get that.


Now, this is fine. There’s nothing wrong with people choosing difficult paths. They are pioneers, they find ways through the thickets for the rest of us to follow.

One of the reason that OS X is so good today is Apple built it on FreeBSD. OS X stands on the shoulders of open source giants.

FreeBSD isn’t Linux, but the two have a lot in common. Both are Unix-based and both are open source. Many commands are similar. Hacking around in the OS X terminal is a piece of cake for anyone who mastered Linux.

Tweakers of the world unite

Moreover, open source pioneers wrote and tweaked a lot of code powering modern desktops.

Some of today’s iPad-only pioneers may be developers who fix code. It’s unlikely they’ll fix or improve iOS because it is a proprietary operating system.

Even so, they will be helping to find ways through technical thickets for the rest of us to follow later. They’ll figure out how to cope with, say, the iPad’s lack of a formal file system. They’re more likely to be writing useful new apps than parts of the underlying system.

What’s more, they’ll won’t all be passive consumers of technology. Many will submit bug reports and feature requests to Apple’s developers. We’ll get better tablets and tablet software thanks to them.

So while Martin is right about iPad-only pioneers doing it for the challenge, their curiosity and exploration isn’t a waste of time. iPads and other tablets are the future of personal computing, it may take years until they are the mainstream, but the pioneers will help us get there sooner.

If you plan to use an iPad as your main computer, take a look at A practical guide to writing on the iPad