Time for Apple to open up the iPhone

Ever since Apple introduced the App Store, someone or other has written weekly (perhaps daily) about why Apple’s tight control over the App Store is a bad idea. Every time an app is rejected or delayed, the teapot is stirred again.

This isn’t going to be one of those stories where I accuse Apple of being overly controlling and inconsistent with its App Store rejection policies. Nor am I going to demand, as many have, that Apple needs to stop filtering the App Store out of some free-floating sense of fairness and righteousness.

No, I’m here to say to Apple that while I understand very well the reasons for the company’s walled-garden approach to native iPhone OS apps, the strengths of that approach have now been surpassed by the bad publicity and reputation that Apple and its products are now getting in the market as a whole.

Many critics of Apple’s policies have suggested that developers will abandon the iPhone OS for more open platforms such as Android. Some of them have, and I’m sure more will follow. But I’m not convinced that the absence of some developers on the platform will really make the difference. As long as there are tens of millions of iPhone OS devices out there—and Apple keeps selling them at a fast pace—there will be developers who want to sell apps to run on them.

It’s those device sales that worry me. Not in the short term, but over time.

Bad reputation

These days, when I talk to people who are not immersed in the minutiae of the technology industry, I notice a troubling trend: They tend to speak about Apple’s products with some affection, but it’s increasingly tempered with assumptions that the devices are largely incompatible with competing technologies.

In other words, Apple’s getting a reputation. Fair or not, once consumers begin to perceive the company as being overly controlling and devoted to lock-in—and don’t think that Apple’s competitors aren’t hammering the company on this point—it will start to be a drag on Apple’s hardware sales.

The other day I was talking to a colleague, a bright guy who obviously works in the technology and media industries, but isn’t on the technical side. He’s what I’d call a moderately informed tech consumer, and I was showing him my new iPad. His response to me was shocking: He said that he had been interested in buying an iPad, but needed to read PDF files, and since Apple only supported its own formats, he couldn’t buy one.

Of course the iPad reads PDFs, I told him. He was surprised. Can I load my own videos and music on it, or only stuff I buy from Apple? Sure, I told him, you can load your videos and music. I managed to bat down every single concern he had about the device. He didn’t mention Flash once, because running Flash in a browser wasn’t a priority for him, but Apple’s anti-Flash stance had helped reinforce his perception that the iPad was a closed-off device that only played back stuff purchased from Apple.

This kind of consumer perception is what can hurt Apple, if it spreads. And don’t think that every Android phone maker isn’t spreading it, and don’t think that every tablet maker won’t spread it as soon as they finally ship those tablets.

Droid does

The forthcoming release of iPhone OS 4.0 is, in many ways, an attempt to knock items off the Android anti-iPhone checklist. Every morning on the radio I hear a “Droid Does” ad, which describes Droid phones as “multitasking and taking names.” iPhone OS 4.0 will stifle those complaints, even as we geekier types argue about just what Apple means by iPhone multitasking.

At the iPhone OS 4.0 launch event, Steve Jobs had every opportunity to bat down the other major competitive claim Android has over the iPhone OS: the fact that third-party iPhone app development isn’t “open.” Instead, Jobs went on a rant about porn being available on Android and not on the iPhone.

I can’t tell you how disappointing that moment was for me. Perhaps Jobs believes what he said, but it’s a ridiculous claim. Setting aside the issue that people should really make decisions for themselves about what they want to do with their devices, and that the iPhone OS has parental controls that could be used to block adult content from appearing on kids’ devices, Jobs’ statement was also completely counterfactual.

There’s porn on the iPhone now. Not only does the iPhone have free and easy access to all the porn on the Web, but there’s even an iPhone Porn App Store that sells (web-based) porn apps that work on unmodified iPhone OS devices.

Another reason Apple has probably been hesitant to open up the iPhone to unapproved apps is, that people will write malicious apps, and the damage those apps cause could harm Apple and tarnish the iPhone's image. It's true, so far as it goes. But of course, people can jailbreak their iPhones now, and we've already seen reports of iPhone malware on those phones. At this point the iPhone and the App Store are so established that I don't see how any unapproved malware running on devices set to operate outside the protection of the App Store could seriously backfire on Apple.

I understand Apple’s reasons for wanting to control the content on the App Store. But at this point I think it’s time for the company to, once and for all, bat down the biggest liability of what has become its most important platform.

I don’t think the company needs to stop controlling what apps get in the App Store. All Apple needs to do is add a new feature, buried several menu items down in the Settings app, that mirrors the one found on Android devices: an option that lets you install Apps from “unknown sources.” If a user tried to turn this option on, they’d get a scary warning about how these sources couldn’t be trusted, and that they may lead to instability, crashes, loss of data, you name it. Scary stuff.

Most users will never find that setting. Many who do will be loath to turn it on. But by putting it there, Apple immediately shuts up every single claim that the iPhone isn’t open. (Just as iPhone OS 4’s multitasking feature is debatably not “true multitasking,” no doubt many tech insiders would immediately howl that allowing unapproved apps isn’t truly “open,” but I don’t think regular consumers would notice.)

This is why I am surprised that Apple hasn’t taken this step earlier: By keeping the App Store closed, and by using a rigorous approval process, most iPhone OS users would never, ever consider installing an unapproved third-party app. Even in a world where unapproved apps can get loaded on an iPhone, developers will desperately want to be in the App Store.

(And who knows? Perhaps Apple would even feel free to tighten the screws on App Store approvals even further in such a scenario, to make the contents of the store even more groomed and filtered.)

The Flash flap and the constant drumbeat of ridiculous App Store rejections over the past couple of years have given Apple a black eye, and I’m starting to think that consumers are noticing—with the help of Apple’s competitors, who have suddenly realized that they need to throw some punches if they have any hope of competing with Apple.

It’s a situation that can be cured quickly. But it will require Apple to relinquish some small amount of control and swallow a little bit of its pride. Those are both hard things to ask of Apple, but I think it’s time we started asking. Otherwise I fear that Apple pride in the App Store will be followed by exactly what you'd expect: a fall.

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