Rooting for Team Apple

Since getting an iPad for father’s day, I’ve checked a couple of times on what information is out there on gaining root access to the device’s software. Skip ahead if you know what I’m talking about.

“Rooting” a device means gaining access to the underpinnings of the operating system and acquiring the necessary permissions to muck around. Without root access, there is much about the OS that can be used, but not modified. By analogy, it’s like buying a house you have been renting. Before the purchase, you couldn’t knock out a wall or install hardwood flooring. But once you own it, you’re king.

Device manufacturers don’t give us root access for a number of reasons, well-intentioned (protecting the device from malicious hacks, protecting us from ourselves) to less-so (keeping us from activating features they plan to charge us for, like tethering). Still, the result is that you end up living like a tenant in the house you just bought.

I rooted my Android handset a while back after spending some time reading up on blogs and in forums. In the Apple community, as with Android, contains those who have reasons not to root. In the Android community, the reasons are most often nervousness about voiding warranties or fear of “bricking” the device. I’ve noticed over the past few days that in the Apple community, users’ statements about why they don’t want to root contain a moral element I don’t recall seeing with Android users. For example, in a comment in a post about rooting the iPad:

And ? Can be done/should be done do not equate. I’ve yet to see a freelance app that’s worth jailbreaking for. Stick with the pros, everyone — there’s an App Store approval process for a reason ….

this amuses me because it confirms my stereotype of Apple users as being motivated in part by a cult-like devotion to something intangible about the brand. But there are some good reasons for advising against rooting an Apple device. Unlike Android, the Apple mobile OS is not open source. So “modders” who want to modify that OS (maybe to add some usability features for lefties, or to add support for a custom kernel that permits overclocking the CPU) are working in the dark. They can’t download and work from the existing source code.

For another matter, Apple has a reputation for taking quick and sometimes aggressive legal action against those who could possibly be perceived as a threat to the brand. Google doesn’t have that reputation, nor do Motorola, HTC, Verizon or T-Mobile. The result is that communities of Android modders can work in the open and collaborate on ever-improving iterations of custom releases of the OS, while there’s still only one flavor of Apple.

So, about that flavor: not that anyone asked or cares, here are my impressions after a couple of days wih the iPad. First, the good:

  • It is hard to be sure until you have had a device for a while, but battery life seems to be great.
  • The screen looks better than the pixel density would lead you to expect, and it’s a great size for email and web browsing. And games!
  • The App Store has a bunch of really polished offerings. All of a sudden, I have access to all those apps by companies who have been saying “and we have an Android app in the works, too”.

But:

  • The apps are expensive compared to Android offerings, and a smaller percentage seem to be free. I’m don’t think I’m getting a better value proposition with the App Store.
  • What’s with all the letters on the keyboard being capitals, even when pressing them gives lower-case? Why does the OS only give me one word suggestion at a time, and then only once I’m most of the way through typing the word? And I miss Swype.
  • this is my biggest complaint: the device badly needs a dedicated “back” button. You need one in almost every program, but on the iPad, you have to hunt for where each program’s developer saw fit to place it. I will get along eventually without Android’s dedicated “menu” button (though the foregoing reasoning applies here as well), and I already don’t miss Android’s dedicated “search” button. But the “back” button is sorely missed. (Blackberry also gets this one right.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a wicked jones on for a game of Angry Birds.

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