iPhone 1.0 forever

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As you’ve read by now, Apple released iPhone update 1.1.1 last week. This update adds some compelling new features, most notably the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, easily-accessible iPod play controls, louder speakerphone and receiver volume, and support for video out.

However, as you’ve also read by now, the update did a few other things. First, as Apple had warned, it turned unlocked iPhones into expensive paperweights, rendering them useless. (A Macworld staffer who unlocked his phone so that we could document this procedure, had this happen to his iPhones.) Second, if you had a modified iPhone that ran third-party applications, like I had, the update removed those apps. So much for my plea to Apple. Finally, if you used Ambrosia’s iToner, or any other such ringtone utility, you discovered that all your custom ringtones were also gone.

Unlike most Apple software updates, I held off on running this one until there were some field reports about exactly what happened. Once those reports started trickling in, I came to a painful but obvious conclusion: I will never install the 1.1.1 update on my iPhone.

I’ve chosen not to upgrade because I value the productivity, entertainment, and customization abilities offered by the third-party applications I’ve added to my iPhone. I don’t want those abilities to go away just to earn the “right” to send Apple more money via the new Wi-Fi Music Store. No thanks; my iPhone will stay at version 1.0.2 for quite a while, it seems.

Now, if some brilliant individual or team of individuals figures out how to work around the locks that Apple has put in place on the iPhone and again enables third-party apps, I will then upgrade my phone—I want the new features, but not badly enough to give up what I’ve already got.

Now, before I go any further, I believe Apple was well within its rights to do exactly what it did. I understand that I (well, my employer) purchased a phone that wasn’t designed to run third-party applications; that it’s Apple’s right to upgrade the iPhone however it sees fit; and that if bad things happen to my modified iPhone as a result of any Apple upgrade, it’s not Apple’s fault.

I also understand that the new encrypted communications between the iPhone and iTunes may very well have been necessary to prevent SIM unlock programs, which directly impact Apple and AT&T revenue, from being created. I fully believe that Apple has the right to do what it needs to do to protect its revenue, and that of its partners.

Still, with that understanding, I have to ask…what was Apple thinking?

Third-party apps and the iPhone

What I don’t understand is that Apple apparently doesn’t see any upside to allowing third party applications on the iPhone. This confuses me, because an active third-party development community can only help, not hurt, Apple’s bottom line. If there’s a large and diverse pool of iPhone applications available, then there’s a large group of potential customers (think geeks and techies, at the least) that would put the iPhone on their shopping list. If they then chose to buy the device, Apple would welcome both the initial $399 in hardware sales as well as the portion of the monthly service charge it’ll receive from AT&T.

These poll results seem to show that there is such a market of potential consumers out there: fully 15 percent of the respondents indicate they are no longer planning on purchasing an iPhone, thanks to the inability to run third-party applications with the 1.1.1 update. (And an amazing 42 percent of the voters are taking the same approach as I, and simply not upgrading their iPhones.) Granted, this isn’t a scientific poll, but the number of respondents in the “will not buy now” category indicates that there are quite a few users who value the ability to run third-party applications on their phones.

So how does Apple lose at all by enabling (and hopefully helping to promote) third-party applications on the iPhone? The company gains more hardware sales, and more revenue from monthly service fees from AT&T. It seems like a no-brainer decision to me, but apparently I’m mistaken.

Is the iPhone an iPod or a Mac

The iPod has been tremendously successful, and yet has never been opened for third-party applications. The only exception is a small number of Apple-approved games, written by only a few companies. Everything else on the iPod is 100-percent Apple-provided and locked down. The Macintosh, on the other hand, would not be what it is today if it weren’t for third-party applications—the number of third-party apps on my Macs is much larger than the number of Apple-provided applications. Apple publishes an excellent software development package (Xcode) that enables anyone who has the desire and technical knowledge to create an OS X application. And there’s no limit to what those programs can do—anyone who wants to is free to compete with Apple’s applications, even those like iWork and iLife that drive Apple’s revenue.

So along comes the iPhone. Is it an iPod? Is it a Mac? Well, the problem is, it’s both—it acts like an iPod, but it runs OS X. From the beginning, it seems Apple’s intent has been to treat the iPhone like an iPod, and not like a Mac. (Even at that, though, the iPhone has some limitations that an iPod doesn’t—no disk mode, for instance.) Hence the locked-down nature of the platform. The lack of any true software development kit. An update which stops third-party applications from working, and makes it much more difficult (if not impossible) for them to be brought back in the future. The evidence indicates to me that Apple thinks the iPhone is an iPod with some cool telephony and Internet skills, basically.

I think this is completely the wrong approach: The iPhone is a Mac, and it should be treated as such. When you combine the iPhone’s OS X core with the large, gorgeous and innovative multi-touch screen, there’s an amazingly vast amount of software that could be developed for the iPhone. In just a few months, we’ve seen more than 60 applications developed for the iPhone—and all of them were created without any sort of documentation or an official development kit from Apple! There are developers eager to help turn the iPhone into a most amazing device, if only Apple would recognize the potential of the platform and the contributions that third parties could make to its success.

And why would we need third-party applications on this “revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone,” as Steve Jobs described it ? Well, this revolutionary device lacks a full Internet messaging (chat) program, something you can find on the giveaway phones found in any cellular store. This revolutionary device lacks the ability to locate itself on a map, something found in quite a few phones via a GPS chip. This revolutionary device lacks any way to customize its look, beyond the opening screen wallpaper—again, you’ll find this ability exists on nearly every other cell phone out there. This revolutionary device can’t customize sounds for various events, such as the new mail sound, the sent message sound, and the unlock sound. This revolutionary device can’t play any games, unless they’re hosted on a web page. This revolutionary device can’t use any MP3 as a ringtone, unlike many giveaway cellphones.

But amazingly enough, my iPhone can do all of those things, and much more. All thanks to the third parties, who have done all of this without Apple’s help, and without any sort of official documentation. Just imagine what would be possible if they had both support and documentation: The iPhone really could be a revolutionary device.

I think Apple blew it here, and blew it in a big way. Instead of embracing and extending the development of third-party applications, it seems they’ve gone in the opposite direction: to make it as hard as possible for third-party applications to exist. From a consumer’s perspective, this is awful, as it’s removing choice from the consumer—not everyone is going to want the same apps and the same look on their iPhone, yet that’s what Apple’s telling us we must have (“Enjoy your new iPhone. Everything you could ever want is right there, and we’re sure you’ll love the theme we’ve installed for you.”)

Of course, consumers still do have a choice, but that choice is to purchase a competing brand’s smart phone. Is that what Apple really wants us to do?

The iPhone Store?

My colleague Jason Snell, believes there’s a possibility of an Apple master plan at work here—the iPhone Store, which would operate much like the iTunes Store, allowing you to purchase approved third-party applications for your iPhone directly from Apple. Apple would, of course, take a cut from each developer (and perhaps charge for the iPhone development kit), and it would have the final say over what applications wind up in the store.

However, even if this comes to pass, it won’t be anything like the vibrant development environment that exists today. If there is a charge for the development kit, that would rule out quite a few of the currently-active developers—very few of them are even asking for donations for their efforts, so they’re clearly not doing this for the money (at least, not at this stage). It’s doubtful they’d be willing to send Apple any money for the right to develop applications they’re giving away.

And if the program is free, would Apple even be willing to carry it in the store, given it wouldn’t get a cut of revenue off of it? Finally, what if a developer wanted to write something that competed with something Apple already offered, or thought it might offer someday? Would it be approved for the iPhone Store? Or what if it were something that directly impacted Apple or AT&T’s revenue today, like a voice over IP application? Would such a program be approved?

What should Apple do?

No, an Apple-run store for iPhone apps isn’t the solution, I don’t believe. I think the solution is nothing more complex than an official Apple iPhone software development kit that’s given away for free, and includes all the necessary tools to build compelling iPhone applications. In my opinion, the long-term success of the iPhone is dependent on it becoming more Mac-like and less iPod-like relative to its support for third party applications.

Until that happens, though, I’ll keep using my non-updated iPhone with its assortment of third-party applications, and hope that Apple eventually sees the upside of opening iPhone development to those who are eager to extend and enhance this amazing device.

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