A while back a friend of mine and I went back and forth on the distinction between a computer and an appliance. We could both point to obvious examples – a laptop is undoubtedly a computer, my dishwasher is undoubtedly an appliance (circuit boards and all). After some back and fourth, we hit an impasse: he thinks the iPad is a computer; I think it’s an appliance.
Without going into too much detail, it came down to device control. On my computer, I don’t have to check with some central authority for permission to do something. If I want to stream video from a server I own, that’s my business to try and figure out. If I want to run peer-to-peer software for transferring copyrighted works or hack open the OS to lay bare it’s most core functions, that’s my business. Heck, I can wipe the whole thing and put on a new operating system. That’s obvious, it’s a computer. By contrast, I don’t expect my toaster to allow me to re-write its pizza algorithm and provide me the tools to do so. It’s an appliance.
I realized I had an expectation that my friend didn’t: I expected that if I own a computer, it is mine to do with as I please. Even if it conflicts with the pre-existing business relationships of the vendor. Or the network operator. Or even some ill-conceived international trade agreement. He didn’t think so. He felt that as long as a company was up front about what you are and aren’t allowed to do with the device, it doesn’t really matter. That’s why he felt the iPad (or iPhone, or iPodTouch) were all computers – they could install software and add new functions. I pointed out my XBOX could, and so could my DVD player. Heck, my router can do that.
For those curious, the crowd-sourced definition did us no good, since it applied to many things neither of us thought was a computer. However, for the sake of completeness, it is:
A computer is a programmable machine that receives input, stores and manipulates data, and provides output in a useful format.
What has me up late wondering though – am I a dying breed, or just off in my definition? Am I wrong to think that I own the devices I buy? Will the next generation even realize what they’ve missed growing up in a world of appliances? Sure, there’s software out there that might mess up your phone or break your tablet, but right along side it is wonderful utilities that let you make free VOIP calls over a cellular data network, analyze security systems for flaws, or view video content that doesn’t come from a company-approved source. Even something as simple as shopping for products that the device maker deems immoral. Do our appliances deserve that much control over our choices?
But then I got an Android device. Sure, it has all the locked-down, appliance-like feel of an iOS device. But there’s one crucial difference:
That little checkbox means the world to me. It means, “You’re an adult. Safety or freedom. Your choice.”
With that, there’s hope.