What is a computer?

by Jonathan Deutsch

There has been a lot of back and forth about Apple’s iPhone 1.1.1 update lately. One side argues that the iPhone is a computer, thus should allow third party apps and non-destructive upgrades. The other side rebukes by stating it is a device, and no other devices allow third party apps or make the manufacturer worry about preserving hacks. The heart of the matter that seems to escape most pundits is this question: what is the difference between a computer and a consumer electronics device?

Most believe that it has to do with the type of processor or processing power. Using those metrics is invalid; so many devices we call consumer electronics (or even other things like cars!) have processors with capable instruction sets and more power than the “computers” of 5 years ago.

I think the appropriate definition for today’s world should be based around the input device; the difference between a computer and a consumer electronics device is determined by the user’s ability to express themselves. The keyboard is the ultimate device for expression; it lets people communicate their ideas fully and quickly. There are other interesting input devices such as tablets, mics with speech recognition, etc., though none have been able to replace the venerable keyboard in effectiveness.

A Tivo runs linux and has a hard drive. Some users hack it in an unsupported fashion. Its input device is the remote control that lets a user do things like play, pause, and change channels. Not very expressive, and therefore it is a consumer electronics device.

My old RAZR had a keypad that was souped-up to let me type letters in as frustrating a manner as possible. It can run some Java applications, but what is the point? It is just a device.

My iPhone has a full/dynamic keyboard and a multi-touch interface.