The company you keep

Apple is no stranger to criticism. For years many columnists and analysts have bashed the company for failings both real and imagined. But recently, the criticism has been coming from many writers and users who usually defend Apple.

Ringing or screaming?

Take ringtones. When the iPhone was first released, Steve Jobs called it “the best iPod we’ve ever made.” But initially it wouldn’t let you use songs in your iTunes library as ringtones.

Predictably, within a month or two of the iPhone’s release, a few enterprising folks had created programs that would let you add your own sound files to the iPhone as ringtones. Then Apple itself seemed to get onboard, announcing that iTunes 7.4 would allow you to turn songs into iPhone ringtones.

But there was a catch: you could create ringtones only from certain songs bought on the iTunes Store, and even then you’d have to pay 99 cents a pop on top of the song’s purchase price. To make matters worse, Apple released an iPhone software update that, according to the developers of those third-party iPhone ringtone utilities, purposely (albeit temporarily) broke their products.

Let’s not put too fine a point on it: the entire iPhone-ringtone issue represents one of the most consumer-unfriendly actions Apple has ever taken. For a company that has carefully (and brilliantly) walked the line between consumer freedom and the piracy paranoia of the record companies, the sequence of events was breathtaking—and worrying.

What’s troubling is not just that I’m stuck using “Old Phone” as my iPhone ring instead of, say, my daughter’s laughter. It’s that Apple’s moves seemed arbitrarily contrary to the interests of its customers. It’s as if the company had abolished iTunes support for MP3s or prevented iPods from playing videos not purchased from iTunes.

But I don’t think Steve Jobs has traded in his black turtleneck for a Darth Vader mask. Ever since it launched iTunes, Apple has been forced to balance the interests of its customers and those of the record companies. And with the iPhone, Apple is contractually bound to another corporate entity—AT&T, its exclusive wireless carrier. It seems pretty evident to me that either the record companies, or AT&T, or both have demanded that Apple not let iPhone customers use their own sound files as ringtones. Why? I imagine it has something to do with creating a controlled market that they can milk for as much revenue as possible.

The iPhone’s future

Breaking ringtone programs wasn’t the most controversial thing that the iPhone software update 1.1.1 did. It also introduced a locked-down security system that killed third-party iPhone software.

With this update, Apple was disabling phones whose owners had hacked them to accept SIM cards from networks other than AT&T’s. Before releasing it, Apple issued a public statement that it could damage SIM-unlocked phones. Those people who updated despite the warning screamed bloody murder.

But the same security system that turned SIM-unlocked iPhones into shiny black bricks also temporarily closed off the ability to run third-party iPhone programs. Was the iPhone software update the company’s attempt to lock out programmers from developing full-blown, native iPhone programs?

I don’t think so. I believe the day will come when Apple will allow developers to write software for the iPhone, but right now the company is too distracted to figure all that out. After racing to release the iPhone, the company has had to turn to putting the finishing touches on Mac OSX 10.5 (Leopard). Once Leopard arrives (and it should be on store shelves by the time you read this or very shortly thereafter), it will be interesting to see where Apple turns its focus next.

The iPhone could really benefit from the participation of outside programmers. Even the rudimentary iPhone hacks written this summer showed just how much cooler it could be with add-on programs. Why should Apple have to shoulder the burden of programming for the iPhone all by itself?

As with the Mac, a community of talented developers stands ready and willing to make the iPhone even more appealing and versatile than it is already. I hope they’re given the chance—and well before the iPhone reaches its first birthday.

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