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.