Pressing Apple’s Buttons

When iOS 4.2 arrives next month, the iPad will at last be updated to have feature parity with the iPhone and iPod touch. One seemingly minor change packaged with this update has generated quite a stir: The physical Position Lock button on the side of the iPad will be transformed to a Mute button, more closely mimicking how things work on the iPhone.

Why all the fuss? Two reasons.

First, there are those who prefer keeping a Lock switch on the iPad and are upset about the change. Balancing this out, there are at least an equal number of users (me included, having never used the Position Lock) who welcome a Mute switch’s arrival on the iPad. The result? A controversy. Most likely, the majority of iPad users don’t care about this one way or the other and will adapt to whatever the switch/button does. As such, I don’t see it as a big deal in the long run.

However, it does lead to a second and larger issue — one which is a potentially big deal. The question has been asked: Why not please everyone? As the function of this switch is clearly under software control, why not put an option in the Settings app that allows the user to decide which function to assign to the switch?

Who’s in control? Why not indeed? Offering a choice seems simple enough to do. And it would put an end to all complaints one way or the other. 

An iPad user sent Steve Jobs an email asking precisely this question. As recently reported, Steve answered the email using one of his favorite and most succinct replies: “Nope.”

Neither Steve nor anyone else at Apple has offered further clarification as why Nope is Apple’s apparent final word on this matter. If Apple PR did respond, I can imagine what they might say: “Apple believes that iOS devices should have a unified and consistent interface. Users expect that all iPads will work the same way. We want to live up to that expectation.”

Of course, such an answer ignores the fact that the Settings app provides a host of options for customizing how an iOS device works — although Apple seems mainly reluctant to include settings that modify physical buttons as opposed to virtual ones.

“Okay,” you may be saying at this point, “If Apple doesn’t want to go this route, how about allowing a third-party to create an app that adds the feature?” You’re kidding, right? If Apple doesn’t want to provide this sort of option itself, it certainly isn’t going to farm it out to some third-party. Indeed, as I understand things, Apple specifically prohibits any app from including any modification to any physical button on an iOS device. That’s the main reason that, as reported a few months ago, a camera app was rejected from the App Store: with this app, the iPhone’s Volume button would have acted as camera shutter button. 

Apple’s rationale for this restriction is surely about the same as just cited — except with more force. With third-parties, Apple would have less control over the consistency and reliability of such implementations. It would open up the door to problems caused by the third-party apps — problems for which users would none-the-less blame Apple. At least that would be Apple’s logic.

Too bad. I would have liked the shutter button. It would give the iPhone a more natural camera-like feel when taking pictures. In the same way, I would prefer if holding down a physical button on the side of the iPhone could access Voice Control. Instead, I have to use the front-facing Home button. When holding the iPhone to my ear and wanting to use voice dialing, I find the Home button awkward to access.

In any case, I don’t think Apple’s argument holds up well. I certainly can’t imagine any trouble resulting from Apple offering us such choices. True, I can see a case made for not allowing just any developer to make any modification they might want to a physical button. And a system-wide change to a button certainly goes beyond the sandbox limitations that Apple generally imposes on third-party apps. Still, I believe even this could be accommodated. The third-party app would still have to go through the App Store approval process. If Apple found bugs or other problems with an implementation, they could reject the app on that basis. I don’t see why Apple has to act as the “sphincter police” here (a nod to Kit De Luca) and reject all such modifications out-of-hand. I’d rather trust endusers to intelligently decide what they want or don’t want on their devices than have Apple act as the lone gatekeeper. But I’m not surprised with Apple’s decision. It’s consistent with their tight control over all aspects of iOS devices.

The Mac App Store — revisited. Thinking about all of this, I return to speculating about what Apple’s penchant for control may portend for the Mac and the coming Mac App Store. A lot of ink has already been spilt on this topic — with opinions ranging from a declaration that the App Store marks the end of the Mac as we know it to criticism of such claims as alarmist hogwash. As is often the case, my views fall somewhere in the middle.

I am especially concerned about the survival of third-party utilities — such as WindowShade X, Default Folder X, and LaunchBar. Until this trio of essential utilities are up and running on any new Mac that I buy, the machine feels embarrassingly naked to me. Apple doesn’t provide every feature I want in Mac OS X. It’s great that third-parties are able to fill in the gaps. (I know that some users have found some of these popular utilities to be a common source of OS conflicts, but that has not been my experience.)

The problem is that, given Apple’s current review guidelines, these utilities will not be for sale in the App Store. They will be rejected due to the “behind-the scenes” nature of how they work. The list of App Store excluded software doesn’t end here. As exhaustively detailed by Dan Frakes in Macworld, the full list will be much much longer.

There is no immediate crisis here. As I have previously affirmed, there is absolutely no chance that the Mac App Store will be the only means of installing software in Mac OS X Lion. If I want LaunchBar in Lion, I will be able to download it and install it the same way I now do in Leopard (assuming an updated Lion-compatible version is released).

Still, over time, an increasingly popular App Store could spell doom for the future of such utilities — assuming Apple continues to reject them from the Store. Even if Apple doesn’t require all software to siphon through the App Store, it may cease being profitable for developers — especially from smaller companies — to go any other way. And in the end, users may accept the loss of such utilities — in the same way that they now accept the absence of these sort of customization features on iOS devices.

I am not saying it is certain that is what will happen. However, I do believe that this is what Apple would like to see happen. Everything Apple has done in the past year — from limiting the most recent WWDC to just iOS, to having iOS as the basis of a revised Apple TV, to a more iOS-like MacBook Air that Apple claims is the future of all Mac laptops, to adding an App Store and other iOS-like features in Mac OS X Lion — shows the direction that Apple hopes and expects to go. For better or worse, iOS — and its “curated” world — is at the center of Apple’s universe.