The iPhone: A Puzzle Box

When I was in Japan last year, I bought one of those puzzle boxes popular with tourists. Without the instructions that came with the box, I might still be trying to figure out how to open it up.

And so it is with the iPhone. Only worse. Apple supplies no instructions. Apple doesn’t want you to know how to access the iPhone’s “insides.” It prefers to keep the iPhone as snapped shut as a freshly caught mussel. Yes, with the right tools and know-how, you can take apart an iPhone and check out its internals. Similarly, if you jailbreak an iPhone, you can examine and edit its root level OS software. But Apple deliberately makes all of this hard to do — in every possible way.

This closed-lid policy for the iPhone stands in stark contrast to the Mac itself.

As one example: Don’t expect to learn much from the iPhone update (.ipsw) files on your hard drive (located in ~/Library/iTunes/iPhone Software Updates). Assuming you figure out how to pry them open (hint: Try Pacifist), you’ll find disk images (.dmg files) within. You can’t mount them however. They are password-protected and Apple is not giving out the password. Download a Mac OS X update, and you’ll have no trouble examining the details of its contents.

Another example: Go to the Apple Store Web site and check out the specs for any Mac, say the $1499 24” iMac. You’ll easily find that it comes equipped with a 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 4GB of memory. Dig a wee bit further and you’ll learn that the memory is “1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM.” Try this same experiment with an iPhone and you’ll find…nothing of the sort. You can more easily learn about the insides of almost any other electronic device, from a TiVo to a digital camera, than you can about an iPhone. It’s all a bit silly. If you’re determined to discover the iPhone specs, you can. Sites such as take apart each new iPhone almost as soon as it is released; all its components are revealed.

Some have come to Apple’s defense here, noting that most iPhone users don’t care about such tech specs. They neither seek out such data nor understand what it all means. Perhaps. But this still doesn’t let Apple off the hook. Public access to technical information, such as the results of clinical trials or economic analyses, is important precisely so that those independent experts that do understand the implications can interpret the data and explain its relevance to the rest of us. This is how we get informed about implications that the company itself might otherwise not want us to know.

Apple’s behavior here is not really much of a surprise. It’s consistent with the company’s position regarding virtually everything. It reminds me of my experience at last month’s WWDC. Signs (literally) of Apple’s control-freak security were everywhere. Posters in the hallway and announcements at each session warned attendees that everything being discussed was the equivalent of a state secret. We could not breathe a word of it to anyone, not even our spouses. Any violation and we could be shipped off to Guantanamo. Apparently, this was part of some secret deal that Apple worked out with Cheney before he left office.

To be fair, I understand the need to maintain some degree of confidentiality in this business. But, as least as relates to the iPhone at the WWDC, OS 3.0 was going to be released to the public within a week. Most of the details had already been revealed. And any spy that wanted to know what remaining secrets Apple had up its sleeve need only pay for a WWDC ticket. So why keep the lid on so tight?

Apple’s concern for security reached absurd heights with the WWDC iPhone app it provided for attendees. The app was of no value to anyone except attendees. Its contents was mainly of a list of the sessions. Still, rather than make the app easily accessible via the App Store, Apple required that attendees obtain the app from its Developer site and use a provisioning profile to install it. Because it was somehow essential that no non-attendee obtain the app. That’s weird enough. The kicker was that the profile expired a week after the WWDC was over. I had hoped to save the app as a convenient way to check what sessions I had attended. No such luck. Like the tapes on Mission Impossible, the app was set to self-destruct.

I had several conversations about all of this with developers at the WWDC. Noting the difference between the relative openness of Mac OS X vs. the almost impenetrable iPhone OS, I queried as to why Apple was taking such a harsh stance with the iPhone. After dismissing some common non-explanations (i.e., ones that claimed that the iPhone required greater security than a computer), the consensus answer was to reframe the question: Don’t ask why the iPhone OS is so closed but ask why Mac OS X is so open. If the Mac was an entirely new product released this year, no one doubted that it would be just as tightly sealed as the iPhone. The Mac is “open” only because Apple, due to the circumstances of the history of computers, has no choice.

It’s all a bit sad, because there are definite negative consequences to Apple’s tight lid on the iPhone. I’ve written about these in previous columns. Here is a brief recap:

• Without jailbreaking (and the risks and hassles it entails), you have no access to the OS files on the iPhone. This prevents you from doing much of the important Mac OS X troubleshooting that you can easily do on a Mac.

For example, if your iPhone is running “hot,” it may be because there is an app that is continuing to run even though it should not be. On your Mac, you could check for this via Activity Monitor (or the top command in Terminal). Apple prohibits any sort of similar app running on an iPhone.

Another example: A few weeks ago, I started getting a blank screen every time I launched the AP Mobile app. On a Mac, a likely fix is to remove the application’s .plist file. You can’t do this on an iPhone, as Apple prohibits access to these files. Instead, your only alternative is to uninstall and reinstall the app. While this may work (it did solve my AP Mobile app freeze), it can also result in losing useful app-related data files that you would have otherwise have been able to save.

If Apple is concerned about increased support headaches due to people messing with these files, it could restrict access to them via an “advanced mode” — with appropriate warnings.

• You cannot mount an iPhone or iPod touch as an external drive on a Mac, a restriction that Apple does not even place on its standard iPods. You similarly can’t connect an iPhone to a Mac via Bluetooth, even though Apple permits this for other Bluetooth-enabled phones. All of this means that, except via jailbreaking or via the limited access allowed with certain apps, there is no way to transfer files between your Mac and your iPhone — beyond what Apple permits in iTunes.

• The restrictions of the App Store make it virtually impossible for developers to publicly test beta versions of their software. Nor can they offer demo versions of software for you to try out before deciding on a purchase. And if a developer fixes a critical bug in their app, users may have to wait days or weeks before the bug-fixed update is available in the App Store (as was a problem with the recent Twitpocalypse fixes). And of course, no app makes it to the App Store without Apple’s prior approval, a process that has been subject to all sorts of criticism, such as the recent “promotion code” controversy.

• Without becoming a paid iPhone developer and going through the convoluted hassles of creating a provisioning profile (and believe me, it’s a major pain!), there is no way to bypass the iTunes App Store to get an app on your iPhone. Not even one that you wrote yourself for your own personal use, and that you have no intent to distribute.

• Apple limits the ability of apps to interact with the iPhone’s camera. Currently, there is no way for a third-party app to use the iPhone’s camera as a barcode reader — even though such apps exist for other smartphones as well as for the iSight camera on a Mac. [Update: There are apps that attempt to offer this feature. I tried RedLaser. It correctly identified only one out of six products that I scanned. With better support from Apple, I believe you could get much better results.]

• Apple similarly limits the types of peripherals that can connect to the iPhone. For example, it won’t allow keyboards or game controllers.

Bottom line: A closed iPhone is still better than any other smartphone on the market. And, I concede that a case can be made for at least some of the restrictions cited here. But, if Apple wasn’t so secretive and controlling, the iPhone could be better still.