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(image from Engadget)
I just finished reading the live coverage of Apple’s iPhone SDK press conference. There was a lot to like. Apple spent about 70% of the event touting the ability of any Mac developer to use the same tools that are used to create Mac OS X applications on a computer to create feature-rich apps for the iPhone. iPhone applications developers appear to have pretty much the same access to technology that a traditional computer application developer would have. That's empowering.
Another 15% of the event was spent telling how the iPhone’s next update would be compatible with Microsoft Exchange for the enterprise crowd who want to use their iPhone in the workplace and sync with email, calendar, and contacts, directly with work’s servers (and cutting out the middlemen services like RIM). Again, Apple's shaking things up.
The remaining 15% was spent trying to gloss over the important details. One of the details is in the above slide—where Steve Jobs is talking about the new iPhone iTunes App Store, which will allow iPhone owners to browse for new programs to install on their phone, just like currently exists for downloading music from the iTunes Music Store on the iPhone. A few details that I’d like to flag as gatekeeper issues:
Apple claims that the iTunes Application Store will be “the exclusive way to distribute iPhone applications.”
Apple determines whose software is available in this store, and has a 70/30 revenue sharing model with developers, although free applications are free. Applications receive an electronic certificate so that if developers “write a malicious app [Apple] can track them down and tell their parents.”
Apple may limit the applications that are available in the store if it doesn’t approve for any of the following six reasons: “illegal,” “malicious,” “unforeseen,” “privacy,” “porn,” or “bandwidth hog.”
Apple spent the majority of its presentation just telling us all how great the iPhone is to develop for, it’s just like coding for a computer; then Apple pulls the rug out from under developers telling them that they’ll have to pay the troll at the bridge for the privilege of coding for this miraculous device. Developers don’t need permission to write Mac apps or other computer apps. Is it a security issue? Most computers hold way more personal information than any cell phone, but developers have free-reign to make and sell their warez on PCs. What Apple said today was: If you want to program for the iPhone, you must play by our rules.
Apple’s announcement seems to be a statement of intent that its store will be the only way applications will get on the iPhone in the future. For the publisher/creator, that may sound okay, but what will be the process of getting your software into that store? Will it be like getting your music into the iTunes Store (directly, rather difficult; though through a third party it can be easier), or more like getting a podcast into the iTunes store (much easier, but still with editorial control)? For the consumer, there remains a key difference in the iTunes App Store compared to the iTunes Music Store—there are many other alternatives for downloading music and podcasts, but for getting iPhone apps, the iTunes App Store will be the “exclusive” one.
Now, are most developers going to come up against the wrath of “Apple’s six filthy words,” probably not. Their apps will likely play nicely within the bounds of what Apple wants. But what about “the crazy ones” that Apple used to market to?
Some of those outside-the-box apps were asked about later…
What about the developer who wants to create the first disruptive VOIP client for the iPhone? According to Apple, that kind of app will be limited by its no bandwidth-hog rule:
”We will only limit over cellular — if you want to dev them for WiFi, that’s fine.”
So the app can exist, only so much as Apple somehow restricts what network (cellular or WiFi) access the app will have. Doesn’t that entail some editorial coding on Apple’s part? Mac developers don’t have this kind of intrusion into their application creation. If programming on an iPhone is just as great on the Mac, why should a developer have to put up with this?
What about an app that unlocks the iPhone? Of course, Apple says no to that one, too. When was the last time a Mac developer was told he couldn’t provide or sell an app that lets a MacBook use on a different or competing network?
Compared to the choices the hacker iPhone developer community has today, the Apple iTunes App Store could be seen as a step forward and way to “go legit.” But let’s not pretend that Apple isn’t artificially acting as a gatekeeper here. I can today install apps on my iPhone, it’s just a little tricky; but Apple may figure out a way to disable that as they have before. Is it unreasonable to question whether the iTunes App Store could be used to exert control and maintain scarcity in the phone market. Doesn’t this gateway and approval process remind you of Verizon’s “open-device” program? If the market is truly “going open,” then Apple’s narrowly defined and exclusive gateway could be a step backwards for the phone software market.
We have the next few months to understand better how big and deep this sandbox is that Apple has created for developers. Until then, the new “crazy ones”, also known as iPhone hackers, will continue to explore and exploit every technological possibility of this miraculous device. I know I’m glad to be using their soon-to-be "unofficial" iPhone applications.