iOS: Open Or Shut Case

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 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.