Hacks/Hackers Uniting for iPad Journalism; But What About Apple Control?

I love the Hacks/Hackers Unite idea — getting journalists and programmers and designers together to identify good ideas and hack them together. And I was considering attending this weekend’s event in San Francisco until I saw the agenda:

bringing together journalists and media makers with hackers and designers to build the killer media app for the iPad and other tablet devices. This event will be both a coding development camp and a journalistic boot camp. Teams of hacks (content creators) and hackers (developers and designers) will cooperate to tell develop media applications for the iPad and tablets that help inform, enlighten and tell stories for the public good. You can also build tablet-based tools for journalists.”

I’d have attended except that organizers are ignoring a crucial reality: the violation of journalistic principles inherent in participating in a closed ecosystem that the vendor, not the journalists, will control. Apple, and Apple alone, gets to decide if the journalism apps the hackers create for the iPad — and the journalism they contain — are acceptable. And that’s unacceptable.

Some of the ideas people have posted for the weekend development — and they’re quite creative — must assume Apple’s approval of what they do, a risky assumption given the company’s capricious and opaque rulings about what can be on devices running the iPhone OS. Other ideas, relying on the still-unfinished HTML5, seem not to realize that developers the iPad browser forfeit some of the iPad’s key hardware value, e.g. output from various sensors, because Apple won’t allow browser applications full access to the device’s capabilities.

There’s a sop to “other tablet devices” in the event description. But that’s not very realistic given that Apple forbids development of iPhone OS apps using any tools but the ones it provides — for practical purposes, obliging people developing for the iPad and those other devices to do everything twice, using different tools and even languages. The effect, as Apple intends, is to persuade people to develop mobile apps only for Apple devices.

Here’s where I’m focusing my thinking about tablets and outside-the-box journalistic ideas:

Tomorrow morning I’ll be at the Google I/O conference. Rumors abound that Google may unveil a prototype of an Android tablet. It would be easy enough; essentially, it means putting the Android phone OS on a bigger screen, as Dell is planning to do sometime this year. Android is open-source; Google’s restrictions (or mobile carriers’) have relatively easy workarounds, and the main point is that Google doesn’t decide what apps can use what device features or which apps developers can sell.

I will be working on a tablet-based app or two in the coming months, including something I hope to sell or give away as part of the Mediactive project. But there’s no way I’ll let Apple decide if what I’m doing is allowed. This means I’ll focus my efforts on Android and any other tablet OS that doesn’t force me to ask permission.

On Saturday, I’ll head down to the Maker Faire in San Mateo. What’s that about? From the Maker Faire website FAQ:

Our mission at Maker Media, a division of O’Reilly Media and home to MAKE Magazine, Maker Faire and the host of other inspirational and instructional Maker Media brands, is to unite, inspire, inform, and entertain a growing community of highly imaginative and resourceful people who undertake amazing projects in their backyards, basements, and garages. We call these people “Makers.” 

I wish I could unite the Hacks/Hackers folks with the Maker Faire people. Journalists definitely need to work with programmers. I suspect they need to work even more with the Makers of the world who dream way, way, way outside the boundaries that companies like Apple are creating. Ask permission? These folks laugh at the very notion.

UPDATE: See the comments, where an organizer of the Hacks/Hackers event response.

9 thoughts on “Hacks/Hackers Uniting for iPad Journalism; But What About Apple Control?”

  1. Last year AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, did a Makers Quest project in which public radio producers were tasked with using new technologies to bridge traditional broadcast with emerging platforms. Some of the projects involved the kind of invention you are suggestion. The Corner: 23rd & Union, for example, creatively used Skype to upload voicemail recorded stories to a website. Other projects created new forms of collaborative documentary and storytelling. Check it out at http://mq2.org.

    Julie Drizin

  2. As one of the hackers involved in the broader internet H&H community, I’ll say we’re trying to push more of a “maker consciousness.”

    It is instructive to see the different nature of questions asked on Hack Overflow, our StackExchange install, as compared to what goes on Stack Overflow. I hope that people will start posting more targeted questions to the H&H site.

    I don’t know much about the iPad event; that was a local initiative.

  3. Dan

    I’m curious why you didn’t reach out for comment before writing this post. Yes, I understand the concerns about the iPad being a closed system. But we do intend to foster development of html5 apps that can easily run without app store approval. The fact is, the iPad is the tablet that is now on the market and being used by hundreds of thousands of consumers. Should we wait to develop tablet apps and let journalism keep falling behind? Or why not try to be ahead and learn about how news can work on tablets now?

    1. As noted, HTML5 isn’t finished, and on the iPad the browser can’t get into some of the hardware (e.g. sensors) that are most important for journalism.

      More important, I don’t believe journalists should participate in an ecosystem they don’t control, no matter how many people are using it. That’s the far larger issue.

      Do a weekend on Android and I’ll be there.

  4. I see the iPad as more for consumption at this point, so not sure how important the sensors are besides touch interaction.

    FYI, we do have someone from Google coming to the event to talk about open web standards, so we are definitely embracing that.

    And sure, happy to have an Android event too, one thing at a time.

    Again, it would have been nice to be asked for comment or even simply see a Twitter mention of this post. And now that there is a response, seems it would be appropriate to update your post.

  5. I’m a little more ambivalent, Dan, and though I won’t be spending my whole weekend at Hacks/Hackers (I’ve got family demands!), I’m planning to go to the wrapup and see what folks have come up with.

    Here’s the thing: you say, “I don’t believe journalists should participate in an ecosystem they don’t control,” but I think you may have phrased that more categorically than you intended. Because, really, journalists almost never control the ecosystem they participate in, do they? For starters, most professional journalists work for a company that they have zero control over. They produce stories for editors and publishers who they have no control over. Their work gets changed without their consent. And so on. So the traditional journalism world offers precious little control.

    On the Web, things are better when you’ve got your own blog, and you know that’s a format I believe in. But go beyond that and, really, control becomes pretty elusive once more. There are gatekeepers everywhere.

    Now, yes, Apple is a pretty egregious gatekeeper right now, and like you I resent Apple’s controlled-environment approach to media distribution. It’s hard for me to see how their model can last. The Mark Fiore affair was a harbinger of more intense controversies yet to come. I’m with you on all that.

    But I guess I’m less of an absolutist and I don’t feel that I need to boycott Apple or people developing for it, either. I’m interested in the iPad and what people do with it, and though I’m not going to put my own creative energies into producing stuff to be distributed on it, I’ll try to keep up with what others are doing on it. I feel the same way about Facebook, another environment that doesn’t offer any real control or autonomy. I won’t put creative energy into Facebook, but I’m not going to disappear from it, because — whether I like it or not — it’s a big part of the online scene right now.

    Along the same lines, I paid for an AOL account from roughtly 1994 to 1998 or so. Hated the service but needed to understand it in order to do my job.

    1. Scott, I’m certainly keeping up with what folks are doing with the iPad — it’s important to do my job, too.

      The gatekeeper question is of course one of the big issues going forward. Are we replacing the old ones with new ones, just at the moment when the greatest possible freedom was in our grasp? I hope we are not giving up already.

      I’m typing this on a Mac, so don’t count me among the Apple boycotters. What I will not do is support their closed, control-freakish iPhone OS ecosystem in any way I can avoid. Learn about it, and learn from it, sure. But my efforts will go into creating things for open systems, period.

      I look forward to your wrap-up report.

  6. Hi Dan, as one of the organizers helping Burt put together this iPad dev camp, I felt the need to respond to your post with a little more detail. I appreciate the issues you bring up, but didn’t feel that precluded any involvement with an iPad-centered weekend dev camp. In case you’re interested, here’s my response. Thanks! –Saheli

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