iOS: Open Or Shut Case

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

As with shifts in the weather, the Apple world goes through cycles of interest in the debate regarding Apple’s App Store and iOS policies. While the topic never entirely goes away, there seems to be in an upswing of interest right now. I have commented on this matter more than once during previous upswings. As times change, my attitude evolves as well. Here’s my updated look at this always controversial topic:

What would you like Apple to change as regards iOS and App Store policies?

Just a small request. I would like Apple to loosen restrictions regarding how apps may be installed on an iOS device and what those apps may be.

With almost all products, there are no restrictions on what you can do with the product after you buy it. Once you pay for it, it’s yours. This is true for everything from toaster ovens to automobiles.

Such is definitely not the case for iOS devices. Apple makes it difficult, bordering on impossible, to install apps that do not come from the App Store. You cannot even easily install an app you create yourself just for your own use. The complementary bookend here is that Apple restricts what apps are accepted into the App Store. Apple additionally restricts what peripherals you can attach to an iOS device.

Not all of this is a bad thing. And an argument can be made that mobile phones are a special case. Until Apple came along, phone carriers maintained near total control over what could put on their phones — forcing you to pay for custom ringtones for example. Apple is, in some sense, just following this precedent.

Call me “old school,” but I view the iPhone (and the iPod touch and the iPad) as more the progeny of a computer than a mobile phone. These iOS devices even run on a computer-based OS, a variation of the same Mac OS X that’s on your iMac or MacBook. I’d like to see iOS devices more closely mimic the level of freedom users enjoy on a Mac.

Regarding the App Store, shouldn’t Apple be allowed to do whatever it wants with it? It’s their Store, after all. It’s no different than when Target decides whether or not to carry a specific item. Right?

True. Unless and until Apple’s policies are deemed illegal (and I honestly do not see this happening), Apple is free to adopt whatever policies regarding its App Store that it wants.

However, that doesn’t mean that Apple’s customers must accept such policies without complaint. If there are aspects of the policies that seem hostile or unfair to users, it is appropriate to criticize them — independent of their legal status. Most married couples could easily cite things that bug them about their spouses. That doesn’t mean they want a divorce. And so it is with the App Store and Apple’s customers. 

In any case, I believe the Target analogy is flawed. If I find that Target has chosen not to carry a particular book, for example, I can always drive over to Barnes & Noble and get a copy. Or I can order it from Amazon.com. Further, doing so does not prevent me from returning to Target the next day to make a different purchase.

The App Store does not work this way. If Apple’s App Store does not carry an app I am seeking, and I shift to an Android phone to get that app (assuming the app is available there), I can no longer return to Apple’s App Store the next day. It’s either one store or the other. Even worse, a shift means losing the ability to use all of the App Store apps I had previously purchased. For the Target analogy to hold up, it would mean that, after purchasing a book elsewhere, I would never be able to shop at Target again and would have to discard everything I had ever purchased from Target.

But Apple is a tremendous success right now. It’s making fistfuls of money and its products are selling like the proverbial hotcakes. Doesn’t that mean that people are  content with Apple’s policies? Why should Apple change anything?

Yes, consumers are largely happy with what Apple is doing. Heck, I am largely happy, often thrilled, with what Apple is doing. I’m not interested in switching to Android or any other competing device. That doesn’t mean that Apple could not do better.

As for Apple’s current financial success, there are some dark clouds on the not-so-distant horizon. Android products are increasingly outpacing those from Apple. As seen in a chart recently posted to Business Insider, iPhone + iPod touch “market share growth” is actually declining(!) while Android continues to soar.

These trends are certainly not simply the result of Apple’s App Store policies. Still, a change in these policies might well have a positive effect. It’s something to consider.

What specifically would you have Apple do differently?

I see no hope in getting Apple to significantly change its App Store policies. 

Instead, I would ask Apple to stop trying to block jailbreaking. I’m not saying that Apple should actively support or encourage jailbreaking. Just let it coexist — without requiring jailbreakers to invent new ways to implement a break every time Apple updates the iOS. Jailbreaking has persisted this long without any obvious harm to Apple or its users. Why not end the cat-and-mouse game?

I would also like Apple to offer a simple way for limited and local distribution of apps. For example, if I write an app that just benefits me and perhaps a few of my friends, I’d like to be able to install it on my iPhone — without going through all the developer provisioning hassles.

If pushed, I would also like Apple to find a way to be more open about allowing controversial and adult-content apps in its App Store. But I’m not expecting that.

But many people prefer knowing that Apple curates the App Store. It means they don’t have to worry about installing malware apps or apps that crash all the time. These users are also fearful of the possible negative consequences of jailbreaking, in terms of security risks or damage to their iOS device. What do you say to these users?

To them I say: Fine. If you wish to limit yourself to what is available in the App Store, do so. If that gives you peace of mind, great. I’m not asking for significant changes to the App Store. Nor am I expecting users to take any more risks than they are now doing.

Are there really great apps that users are missing by not jailbreaking?

Here’s where we get to my biggest disappointment regarding jailbreaking. At one point, I had hopes that jailbreaking would lead to the availability of a wealth of apps that could do all sorts of wonderful things that, for whatever reason, Apple would not accept in the App Store.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Sure, there have been a few great jailbreak apps. My favorite has been ScreenSplitr, which allowed me to mirror my iOS devices to large displays long before Apple implemented this in iOS 4.3. MiWi, which allowed WiFi tethering long before AT&T enabled it, is another great jailbreak app. But I can now do these things without jailbreaking (although with more restrictions than the jailbreak apps).

The truth is that, with one exception, if I had to abandon jailbreaking tomorrow, it would be no big deal. The only exception is that jailbreaking provides root access to iOS devices. As a troubleshooter and amateur hacker, I like being able to poke around among iOS System files. Root access also opens the door to several otherwise impossible-to-implement features — such as the ability to wirelessly mount an iOS device as a shared drive on a Mac. I understand that I probably represent a minority interest here. So be it.

It remains possible that, if jailbreaking were ever tacitly accepted by Apple, third-party vendors would devote more resources to jailbreak apps, and we would see a greater number of exciting and worthwhile apps. But I suspect we’ll never know. For now, Apple seeks to block any action, however minor, that might legitimize the perception of jailbreaking (such as when Apple recently pressured Toyota to remove its jailbreak-offered home screen skin).

Some Apple critics point out that Apple does not prohibit songs with explicit lyrics from the iTunes Store. Nor does it restrict books in the iBookstore. It also doesn’t prevent users from adding their own music or books to iTunes and iBooks. Why does Apple take such a different position regarding the App Store?

This is a complex question, one that only Apple can answer with certainty. But I can offer an educated guess.

Partly because there is an app review process, users view apps differently from music or books. If an app presents a security risk or has offensive pornographic content, Apple will likely be held responsible — because Apple “accepted” the app to the Store. The same sense does not apply to other media, as they do not undergo the same review scrutiny.

One solution might thus be for Apple to abandon the app review process and take an anything-goes attitude to App Store approvals. This would not work well either. Doing so would degrade the App Store experience — leading to an explosion of “spam” and “trash” and otherwise-objectionable apps that would not be welcome by anyone. Currently, music and book content in Apple’s stores is mainly limited to offerings from professional publishers and producers, not individuals. With apps, this would not be the case. Anyone who coughs up the $99/year to be a developer could upload an app to an unrestricted App Store. There is benefit to Apple’s app review process, despite its faults.

Additionally, Apple would never permit apps in the App Store that allow root access to iOS devices. This would weaken Apple’s “control” over the iOS. Explicit songs or books do not present this same danger to Apple.

These are also the likely reasons that Apple has taken such a firm stance against jailbreaking. It doesn’t want to facilitate users having root access, not even just to the small jailbreak community. It doesn’t want owners to use their iOS devices in any way other than what Apple approves. And it doesn’t want to facilitate a potentially competitive alternative to its App Store. I don’t share these concerns, but I understand them.

Bottom line

Over time, my attitude regarding Apple’s iOS and App Store policies has evolved. Yes, I would still like Apple to be more “open” — as I have argued here. I would prefer to maintain the option to have root access to iOS. But I no longer see this as essential or important as I once did. As iOS continues to mature and jailbreak offerings continue to languish, I am less and less concerned about this “openness.” Certainly, I see no value in shifting to an Android device simply because of its supposed more open system.

We have not reached the end of this debate. As events unfold, as new products get released, and as the ground continues to shift, there will be further arguments on both sides of this fence. Ultimately, Apple may yet change its position on some of these issues. As always, it will be fascinating to watch.

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Comments

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Three things…

One, what you really want is root access, or at least side loading of apps. Jailbreaking as a mechanism for those necessarily relies on security holes in the iOS. I don’t think you want Apple to leave security holes in. BTW, side-loading on a recent Android device would give you 99% to all of what you seek by jailbreaking iOS. Excepting AT&T phones at the moment, you only need to root if you want to install custom ROMs. Certainly no need to do that to wirelessly mount the phone on your desktop.

Two, Apples’ interest in creating and maintaining a choke point on app purchases is so they can count app purchases and take a cut. Having the App Store available may have had a positive effect on the total number of apps available. Having it a choke point most certainly has not. Android Marketplace has basically attained the same order of magnitude of apps without being a choke point, and with other channels available.

Three, if there were ever a time when Ted’s personal brand could more than survive (and even thrive from) a public defection to the Android camp, that time is now. Ted is in a unique position of having stuck out Apple’s BS far longer than anyone else consistently critical of the walls. And despite not liking the walls, he still really likes Apple. It’s a betrayal Ted could make out of love, and would be a great test for Apple. Could it lure someone like Ted back? I know I’m done with Apple (certainly with iOS, probably with new Macs) until Steve Jobs is not the CEO, but what happens when someone with a bit more patience than I had comes to a similar conclusion? Would Apple try to sell to Ted again or just tuck tail on its way to owning a small niche of sycophants in phones and eventually tablets?

Peter

Nor does it restrict books in the iBookstore.

Rubbish.

Anybody remember iCon Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of BusinessApple removed all of the other books from the publisher from their stores out of spite.  Ever notice how you can’t buy the audiobook from the iTunes store?  Notice how it’s not in the iBookstore?

Now wander over to Amazon.  Notice it’s available as an eBook and an Audible.com book?  But you can’t buy it through iTunes…

Nah.  Apple would never censor a book with information that it doesn’t like…

Nemo

Ted:  This is an excellent piece.  It gives me a lot to think about.  Between you and John, TMO has become a place of editorial distinction.

However, let me make just one observation.  Apple, like almost every other maker of operating system software, never sells its operating systems to anyone.  Apple, like most other makers of OSs, sells you a perpetual, non-exclusive license in its iOS and its other operating systems, which allow you to use its operating systems subject to the terms of their respective licenses.  Your right to possess and use any of Apple’s OSs ceases the instant that you engage in a material breach of the terms of the license.  So no, neither you or anyone else, contrary to popular opinion, every buys a copy of any Apple operating system; you only license the particular Apple operating system, subject to the terms of its license.  This is now a well settled question of law.

JonGl

When I finally get a factory-unlocked iPhone, one jailbreak app I’ll miss is SBSettings, where I can flick across the menu at the top, and toggle all those things that Apple requires multiple steps to toggle, or I can kill processes I want to kill. (toggles: 3G data, wifi, BlueTooth, airplane mode. settings: brightness, processes, respring, reboot, and check network status and memory)

Like Ted, I have been overall disappointed in what’s available via jailbreak, but, honestly, in the end, it’s those little system hacks I’ll miss the most, not the bigger apps, and it’s just those little things that Apple won’t allow in the App Store…

-Jon

aardman

“As a troubleshooter and amateur hacker, I like being able to poke around among iOS System files.”

I think, by their actions, Apple has made it pretty clear that this is not the type of customer they’re after (for iOS devices). 

And I think their main reason for discouraging jail breaking and banning side loading is to protect their brand reputation.  They want to prevent the rise of any significant buzz linking iOS devices with malware or crapware.  You know, online posts that go “I installed this app and my POS iPhone crashed/has significantly slowed down/lost all its data/etc.”

waltp

Ted,

I disagree with your claim that you can do anything you want with just about any item that you buy.  Sure, you can drill a hole in the handle of your shovel so that you can hang it on a hook.

But your example of being able to do anything you want with your automobile just doesn’t hold true.  Changing or removing the emission controls will get you in trouble with the law.  There are standards for bumper and headlight heights, so jacking up a vehicle often violates those standards.  How about loud exhaust systems?  Tampering with electronics that emit RF energy?  You’re not allowed to make any old change you want, just because you own the product.

One more example:  Try replacing your car’s headlights with aircraft landing lights.  (More power!!!  Yep, you might need to upgrade the electrical system.)  See how long it takes for the law to decide that it’s time for a roadside chat.

Your point about doing what you want with something you bought strikes home with me.  But it’s not a totally valid argument.  There are limits.

Ted Landau

Your point about doing what you want with something you bought strikes home with me.? But it?s not a totally valid argument.? There are limits.

True enough. However, I would point out that all of the examples you gave are limits enforced by government regulations, not by the company that made the automobile.

Peter

Actually, Walt, you can make all those changes.  You will just have issues when trying to drive your car on the public roads.

Look at Monster Trucks.  They are obviously not “street legal.”  But no one has ever said, “Because jacking your truck up and putting it eight feet in the air will make it illegal for you to drive on public roads, you can’t do it.”

There are people who modify their cars and race them on tracks.  Some of these people have controls to turn on and off their “non-street legal” parts and some just modify the cars at the track and replace them afterwards.

The issue people are tap-dancing around is warrantee coverage.  I can obviously do whatever I want to my iPhone.  The question is will Apple repair or replace it if something goes wrong.  Magnuson-Moss pretty well answers this question:  It is up to Apple to prove that whatever modification you made caused the problem before they can deny warrantee service.

For example, if I install some application that eats the battery, such that I have to recharge my phone 3 times a day, my battery is going to be shot.  If I take it in to Apple after nine months and say, “replace my battery for free,” Apple can look at the phone and say, “Nope.  This App is destroying the battery.  No warrantee for you!”  On the other hand, if I install said application and, six months later, the screen dies, Apple can’t really show that the application had anything to do with it.  They have to replace the screen.

wab95

Ted:

Excellent article, as reflected in the thoughtful discussion it has inspired. Likely, yours is not the only thought that is evolving as the ultra-portable platform evolves. Just a couple of thoughts.

Call me ?old school,? but I view the iPhone (and the iPod touch and the iPad) as more the progeny of a computer than a mobile phone. These iOS devices even run on a computer-based OS, a variation of the same Mac OS X that?s on your iMac or MacBook. I?d like to see iOS devices more closely mimic the level of freedom users enjoy on a Mac

I would actually call it ‘wrong school’ (sorry, mate). Nemo addresses this fairly comprehensively above. While I am not a lawyer (though married to one), I see the issue of iOS and its OS X parent lineage having little to do with the limits of license of each - specifically for the devices that house them. OS X is the beneficiary of a very different legal landscape with respect to the world of so-called ‘personal computers’ and the industry that it spawned, an industry many have likened to the wild-west in that many of the laws that affect both personal computer hardware and software was developed post-facto, as the law has struggled to keep pace with the industry’s growth.

iOS and its supported hardware, specifically the iPhone and the iPod touch even before the iPad, were born amidst the welter of litigation over copyright, format, ownership, costing (levies), profit distribution, etc first in the music world then in the movie and television industries, such that the requirement to bring onboard well-established business partners, and their models for profit generation, could never accommodate nor permit the margins of tolerance that characterised the relative freedom of the personal computer. This, plus Apple’s own business model of wanting, despite the complexity of the world in which iOS had to operate, to ensure a consistent and enjoyable user experience have been the two principal forces - the anvil and hammer if you will - that have shaped the restrictions under which the iOS and its devices are licensed.  That iOS and OSX share a common phylogeny is independent of, indeed irrelevant to, the legal frameworks within which each has to operate. Admittedly, this is my own uneducated view, but reflects my experience in dealing with private industry and its proprietary restrictions as a business partner.

The other thought is this, the iOS and its ecosphere of products (e.g. iPhone, iPad, etc) and services (i.e. iTunes, App Store) is a model in genesis. It is being shaped by market forces as evolutionary in nature, albeit faster paced, as any described by Charles Darwin. While the law imposes parameters on the market, the market pushes back against law to generate new models for growth - often in unforeseen and unpredictable directions. Whatever business model and legal restrictions are today, market forces combined with Apple’s will to survive will shape what they will be tomorrow. This is why Apple needs competition from the likes of Google, Microsoft, RIM and Nokia - very different businesses with very different models that can push Apple’s instinct for innovation not only in products, but solutions to ensure its profitability.

That spells change ahead, which means that this ride has only just begun. In the words of James T Kirk in the latest Star Trek ‘Beginnings’ (2009) movie, “Buckle up!”.

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