Freedom to tinker is the missing feature in tablets and smartphones

I had a really good conversation earlier today with a reporter. We were discussing the tablet craze and how tablets (and smartphones) could replace computers. I agreed that in a growing number of cases, they can replace PCs. Then he asked me a the following question: “What do tablets miss?”. My response puzzled him. I told the reporter that tablets and smartphones miss freedom. Freedom to tinker. To hack. To experiment with code.

The reporter’s response was his readers, ordinary people, do not care about code. This may be true. On the short term, they don’t care. On a longer term, society as a whole really cares about code. Let me explain: more and more, computers are the interface between us and the rest of the world, for very basic needs such as communicating, learning, getting informed, entertained and such.

But tablets and smartphones do not enable people to program; yet they will replace most of the PCs. In a near future, most kids will experience computing through a tablet or a smartphone: a machine that cannot be programmed easily.

This means two things:

1 – people will grow in a world where they are used to being consumers of applications, without the ability for them to control their computing experience.
2 – innovation is less likely to happen if children don’t learn how to tinker as they grow.

This is not the world I want for my children.

I often get the question from reporters on how I see the future. My answer is this: “I don’t see the future. I don’t know how to predict it. But I know what I want, and I work hard to make it happen”. This is why I’ve been involved with Mozilla for almost 15 years now: I want to invent the digital future that I want to live in.

Maybe you want the same. For this to happen, we need to create a generation of Web makers. This is an important focus for Mozilla. I’ll quote Mark Surman, Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation, about what this means:

A 100 years from now, we could have a world where making and coding online are a mainstream amateur activity. There would still be professional coders, of course. There always will be. But a huge number of the people making apps, tinkering with robots and writing code would be doing it for the joy of it.

This would ensure freedom for users and innovation for society, just like we had in the PC era and the Web era.

This is not just a dream. It’s a goal. To reach this goal, we have programs such as Mozilla WebMaker, tools, such as Thimble, Popcorn Maker, X-Ray Goggles and events, such as the upcoming Mozilla Festival.

The Mozilla Festival is going to take place in London on November 9th to 11th, 2012. I’ll be there, and there are a few dozen tickets still available. Get yours fast, if you want to build the digital future you want, not the one that’s handed down to us.

2 responses

  1. Jed wrote on :

    Luckily we have MeR/Sailfish (Jolla) etc. to fill this gap…
    FirefoxOS can learn a thing or two from it & follow it’s lead.
    Native code FTW!

  2. Steve McLaughlan wrote on :

    Well-written post… although I don’t fully agree that everything will be moving to mobile devices.. at least not in the near future. For now, and possibly for a very long time, productivity applications, or applications that require you to sit on a desk and concentrate on the job will still be mostly better served with a desktop. Mobile devices may be where the hype is at the moment, but that’s mostly driven by the current fast development on this market. However, once things settle down, we’ll come to a realisation that smartphones and PCs are actually complementary devices. Pens and papers have been “mobile” for ages – yet we’re not used to see people doing their daily job in public gardens instead of in an office. That makes you think whether mobility is really required for everyone of if it’s simply overrated right now.

    I work as a developer and I feel sad when I see most development effort being moved to mobiel apps. Desktop apps are still being used, and they tend to be used for longer periods and in most cases are more productive. I needed to prove this point, and we ended up integrating Trackerbird ( – a service to track software usage on desktop – just like there is Flurry for iPhones ( What I’m saying here was proven correct. The bulk of the work is still being done on PC’s, and smartphones are not a drop-in replacement. Software vendors need to understand that before it’s too late