Life is a Mystery

12 July 2010

Kids code too

Google seems to understand the future. I’m afraid Apple may be missing the boat.

Many months back, soon after first starting to use the iPad, Alex and I wrote a simple little program for the pad that got rejected Apple’s App Store. After some back and forth with the App Store I wrote a note to Steve Jobs because I wanted to go on record about the danger of Apple’s tight fisted approach to development and plead for a more open approach. I was particularly worried about the impact on kids.

I am worried that we are making it impossible for kids
to fall in love with the creative side of computing. I believe that computers are instruments, like a cello or a pen, they are tools with which we create, not just consume. I have tried to raise my kids to look beyond the surface of these wonderful devices, to reach in and learn to create with them. My eldest son has come through Lego, to AppleScript, to Cocoa. My younger son has learned to experiment with Scratch. Both love their Macs, iPods, and have had a blast with the iPad.

I lamented the banning of Scratch from the App Store, and the expense kids faced if they wanted to write iOS apps. I never did get a response, but I’ve reproduced the letter itself below the fold in case you are interested.

Meanwhile, last week I started using an Google’s Nexus One phone and started paying attention to Android development options. Low and behold, today I read about Google’s App Inventor for Android project. App Inventor is a visual programming environment to allow kids to write Android apps.

I think Google understands something Apple has forgotten. It is vital that we nurture our kids’ curiosity about the devices they use. The best way to do that is to let them have some agency, to give them tools to create with those devices. Even Nathaniel, the non-coder in our family, has told me he wants to write games for his iPhone. Maybe I’ll have to get him an Android device some day if Apple does not come to its senses.

My full letter to Steve is below the fold, if you care to read it.
Before I get to the letter, I’d like to give a shout-out to Hal Abelson and MIT for their involvement in this work. It is great to see MIT also continues to value the urgency of growing minds.

Date: Sat, 24 Apr 2010 10:48:51 +0200
Subject: EveryPixel and inspiration
From: Eric Celeste
To: Steve Jobs

Steve, I was a campus consultant for NeXT in Ohio, and you also stayed with my family in the Governor’s Residence once in Columbus. I’ve evangelized Apple products since the Apple ][ and Mike Boitch, bless him, even sent me one of the first Macs. I am a huge fan of everything Apple has accomplished, and especially of the depth of commitment and grace you bring to the products at Apple, NeXT, Pixar, and beyond. Thank you.

That said, I am very concerned about the App Store and the future of the iPad in particular. I am worried that we are making it impossible for kids to fall in love with the creative side of computing. I believe that computers are instruments, like a cello or a pen, they are tools with which we create, not just consume. I have tried to raise my kids to look beyond the surface of these wonderful devices, to reach in and learn to create with them. My eldest son has come through Lego, to AppleScript, to Cocoa. My younger son has learned to experiment with Scratch. Both love their Macs, iPods, and have had a blast with the iPad.

Below you will find a rejection message that my older son and I just got from the App Store this week. A few months back we set up a small company so that we could develop some small apps for the iPhone and iPad. One small app for the local Democratic party has already made its way to the App Store. Last week we tried our hand at iPad programming and created a very simple app to help us take a close look at the iPad screen, a simple pixel checker. This is a genre of app that is common on the Mac and iPhone, and we wanted to see every inch of the iPad screen in its full red, green, and blue glory. We also noticed that there were no pixel checkers out for the iPad yet, so we were excited to get this app out to other users who might be looking for such a tool.

The rejection our EveryPixel app received mystifies us and was quite discouraging to my son. We could find nothing in the SDK license that we had violated, and the explanation of the review that somehow a red, green, and blue screen could be “potentially inaccurate” and “confuse users” seems silly. There seems to be no recourse or appeal.

I worry for the future of these wonderful devices if the hurdles to creativity are so high. Not only do Alex and I have to pay $100/year for the ability to move code onto devices, but when even trivial programs get rejected for reasons that are not spelled out in the contracts we agreed to, the joy of developing for the platform starts to seep away. I will grant you that the iPhone and iPad currently are attracting new developers, and NeXTSTEP/Cocoa is a jewel in Apple’s crown and a key asset in that attraction, but I fear that young minds are being shut out, the hurdles are quite high, the arbitrary judgements quite discouraging.

As I said, my younger son uses Scratch, a Smalltalk-based development environment from MIT. Today I learned that the Scratch player which had been available on the App Store is now banned. What avenues will be left open for young minds? How will you create the next generation of engineers and artists that populate the halls of Apple and are responsible for the current richness of apps on the App Store?

I realize that I am but one small voice and you have many forces to hold in balance to nurture the growth of the iPad and all of Apple. I appreciate the difficulty of the task and the magnitude of the accomplishments to date. This is just a poke from outside the bubble. Apple’s control of the App Store is critical, but the current degree of restriction and defensiveness feels dangerous out here. It is not a sign of the Apple I love. I hope that it can change.

Best wishes,

…Eric

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Eric Celeste / Saint Paul, Minnesota / 651.323.2009 / efc@clst.org