Why Apple Should Not “Open Up” the iPhone

In a thoughtful piece, Macworld’s Jason Snell argues that it’s time for Apple to “open up” the iPhone. 

No, I’m here to say to Apple that while I understand very well the reasons for the company’s walled-garden approach to native iPhone OS apps, the strengths of that approach have now been surpassed by the bad publicity and reputation that Apple and its products are now getting in the market as a whole.

Though well-meaing, when I look at the reasoning provided, I find I cannot agree with any of it. 

I was showing [a non-technical colleague] my new iPad. His response to me was shocking: He said that he had been interested in buying an iPad, but needed to read PDF files, and since Apple only supported its own formats, he couldn’t buy one.

There’s nothing in opening up the iPhone that would stop his colleague form thinking that. Heck, there are people who think a Mac can’t read Microsoft Word documents even though Word’s been on the Mac over 20 years! This kind of perception is simply not possible to prevent, and even if it were, an “open” iPhone wouldn’t do it. 

There’s porn on the iPhone now. Not only does the iPhone have free and easy access to all the porn on the Web, but there’s even an iPhone Porn App Store that sells (web-based) porn apps that work on unmodified iPhone OS devices.

This same argument works for any non-App Store app. Point being, don’t point out that “closed” is no good because we have the web, but then argue we must have “open” while ignoring that same web. Indeed, Steve Jobs all but begged developers to write web apps in the iPhone’s first year, and was mocked for it.  

Can’t get your app on the iPhone? Write a web app. Oh, but then you wouldn’t get all the benefits of the App Store. Guess what? You won’t get those benefits from “open” apps, either. Which means many complaints about web apps will become the complaints about “open” apps. It won’t shut up the critics, it’ll likely make them louder. 

Another reason Apple has probably been hesitant to open up the iPhone to unapproved apps is, that people will write malicious apps, and the damage those apps cause could harm Apple and tarnish the iPhone’s image. It’s true, so far as it goes. But of course, people can jailbreak their iPhones now, and we’ve already seen reports of iPhone malware on those phones.

I don’t see how jailbreaking belongs in this conversation. First, while “open” is a geek argument to begin with, jailbreaking is even a smaller subset of that. I’m a geek, and have never considered jailbreaking. Second, it’s unsupported, whereas “open” apps would be a supported Apple solution.

All Apple needs to do is add a new feature, buried several menu items down in the Settings app, that mirrors the one found on Android devices: an option that lets you install Apps from “unknown sources.” If a user tried to turn this option on, they’d get a scary warning about how these sources couldn’t be trusted, and that they may lead to instability, crashes, loss of data, you name it. Scary stuff.

The Microsoft solution? Oh please no. How many “scary warnings” did Mac users have to sit through in the 90s regarding QuickTime or other non-Microsoft technologies that kept users from straying? Now Apple should do the same? No. If Apple implemented “open” this way, some might be OK with it but I’d call them on it. If nothing else, let’s be clear that if Apple does “open up”, make it a slider somewhere that says it allows apps to be installed from various sources other than the App Store, and be done with it. The user slides it On or Off, that’s it.

But by putting [the option mentioned above] there, Apple immediately shuts up every single claim that the iPhone isn’t open.

This is the gist of Mr. Snell’s argument, but I don’t see it. Such apps would have zero benefit of the App Store and, as with web apps, it seems devs and critics want it all. These are the arguments I see within a few weeks of the “open” iPhone: 

  • AppCo CEO Ima Weasel claims their BestApp app would sell like hot cakes, but Apple refuses to promote it. “Apple only promotes apps in their store”, Ima explained, “and won’t promote anything that doesn’t get them 30%. It’s all about greed.” It will be ignored, of course, that Apple’s 30% includes hosting, exposure, collection, possible promotion, sales statements, etc., and that these services are included even for free apps, for which there’s no 30%. 
  • It’s become clear that Apple’s “open” app policy was a cynical move to silence critics and fool consumers, while simultaneously making it too difficult for the average user to find and install such apps. Until Apple raises the usability and exposure of the “open” store to a level closer to their own, it will serve only as a shield to deflect criticism of their “walled garden.” This will ignore that the “average user” never cared about an “open” iPhone in the first place, and that Apple should obviously not have to give a second app option equal footing with its own. 
  • Apple rejected another app today. “We simply think farting bikini babes is inappropriate for our store”, said an Apple spokesperson, “but the the developer is free to utilize the “open” option.” But Apple knows the “open” store is a relative ghost town. Indeed, Apple appears to utilize the “open” option primarily to reject more apps than before, since they can claim the developer has another venue in which to sell them. In a sense, “opening” the store allowed Apple to tighten their grip on what’s essentially still a closed platform. Make no mistake, this Apple-opened-to-become-more-closed argument will get huge play. They’ll be accused of “banishing” apps to the “open” option. Count on it. 

Can any one following the anti-Apple shrieking over the last three years not see those articles being written? I see them as clearly as the Mac I’m writing this on. And they’ll gain traction, too, especially with Apple’s competitors.

So, no, the “open” iPhone will not silence the critics. Rather, it will give them more attack vectors to claim Apple is actually moving to solidify their closed, anti-competitive environment. An environment they can’t even prove Apple possesses. Meanwhile, Apple would be stuck with more criticism and accusations, from more quarters, with more wild speculation than they have now. And to make it worse, they’ll have to support it.

30 thoughts on “Why Apple Should Not “Open Up” the iPhone

  1. I also say Apple should not open their platform.I don’t want users with that kind of crippled mind calling themselves participating in an open platform.It would harm OSS and what they represent. Apple users should stay where their strength is: Believing everything and doing what the Apple-God is praying…

  2. I agree, if Snell’s primary objective is to silence critics, he’ll need to come up with another proposal, pronto, cuz this ain’t the one. I’m a little surprised, having read some of his previous work, that he attributes so much influence to the tiny percentage of geeks who jailbreak or the few pervs who may patronize an iPhone porn market. This is not about whether or not parental controls could prevent porn from being accessed by children. This is about how Apple wants the platform to be perceived – by adults! I agree that the AppStore process needs some work, and Jobs will be the first to tell you the same. However, folks who insist upon unapproved apps and Flash and native porn apps always have the option of going elsewhere, so I don’t get where all this geek fear is comming from.It’s people like Jason who are in part responsible for his friend’s ignorance, continuing to trumpet those things that iPhoneOS does not include.

  3. Apple could come up with a cure for cancer tomorrow and it would be roundly criticized by the nerdsphere. Why? Because it’s Apple.

  4. @akatsuki, I think you really need to define “open” and “vendor supported” as you understand them. I see them as two extremes of a continuum. It sounds to me like you’re going into a restaurant and expecting a burnt raw steak. It seems to me that the point of this article is that as you get more “open” you necessarily loose vendor support.I’d argue that iPhone 1.x was burnt (probably out of necessity, the infrastructure to support an app store wasn’t there yet). The app store we have now is medium well. But you’re asking for one that is open to all. Let’s call it “raw”. That’s what Cydia is. And you have to be careful with raw meat! But that doesn’t mean there’s no place in the world for steak carpaccio.I imagine that if there was a totally open app store installed on your iPhone or iPad by default, then you would run just the same risk of bricking your device by loading a malicious or poorly written app. If there was someone “supporting” that store, they might not let those apps in. Then it wouldn’t be open.So to me what we’re really arguing about is what temperature we want our steak. Most would argue that it should be somewhere between burnt and raw, but it’s going to be tough to find an answer that will please everyone.

  5. I can actually see those anti-Apple arguments being used by Jason Snell himself in a future editorial in MacWorld.

  6. @ Tatil Not sure how I made that argument. Jailbreaking is a risk, and you can brick your phone. I’d rather have a reluctantly supported vendor option instead. The whole arbitrary approval process is detrimental to everyone, and the refusal to allow apps that are hugely useful (Google Voice) really, really sucks.

  7. Why would Apple have a “side” store which implies that it will support the apps in the Store? The current “closed” store ensure some kind of quality and probably fewer support costs. If I were the shopkleeper for this store I would , I would say a resounding “NO!”

  8. There is also the perception that the iPhone is a computer. Technically speaking, it is. But in fact, from Apple’s point of view, it is just a device with an API. Apple does not want you to play in the park, you have to stay on the paths. Some paths are closed for the moment. For personel only. Don’t use that private API until Apple decides it is there to stay.Geeks don’t like that.But that is not the point I guess. If you want to beat a dog, you will always find a stick.

  9. -Because “we are open” is the only argument Android has-Open AppStore sounds good-Developers can invest their time without worrying about apps being accepted or not-It will make life for Apple easier-Journalists will have one thing less to troll about

  10. The best part of this debate is iPhone is the most open native C app platform in consumer electronics and the only one that exists on phones. Nobody else is even competing with Apple yet to prove their native app strategy wrong.Android’s native C API is 100% closed to 3rd party developers, same as Chrome OS. Google only offers Java applets running in a virtual machine to 3rd parties, while Google writes its Android apps in C. A Java applet is just another kind of Web app, which are open on iPhone as well. A 3rd party developer for iPhone is writing the same C as Apple, using the same tools, running deep in the system, and that requires curation to keep out malware. In spite of closed native apps, Android still has malware. Other phones offer Java also. Game consoles offer C but more tightly managed than Apple.What’s more, the Mac is the only PC that ships with open source Unix, Python, Perl, PHP all built-in. Windows does not compare at all.So a user with iPhone and Mac has a much more open setup than a user with an Android phone and Windows PC. The iPhone apps are curated but Android’s and other phones are closed. The Mac has an HTML5 browser and all these open formats and open source projects and languages and other PC’s have Windows with proprietary Web apps and formats and no open source. It doesn’t even have OpenGL.This whole debate is just nerd propaganda. There’s no truth in it. I think you’re very right that it will go on no matter what Apple does. It was happening before App Store and would go on after. Users whose experience is the bizarro world of the PC industry will require education. That’s what Apple Stores are for, you try the gear out. People whose livelihood depends on PC monopolies will whine and make anti-Apple PR. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.

  11. All of this makes for a fine intellectual. I think the main issue, though, is this. Why would Apple bother to “open up” up the iPhone? The current plan is working like gangbusters. Historic, almost unfathomable gangbusters. There are over 100M iPhones and iPod Touches out there and they are selling iPads at the rate of one every three seconds.So why should they change their approach?

  12. Opening of Appstore could silence the critics, here is how:-Make clearer but more flexible set of rules for Appstore acceptation-Deny access for apps that do not comply with security policy-Allow any other app-Mark as “Apple certified” app which comply with Apple developer guidelines-Pop-up warning screen before user would install “uncertified” appIn other words – moderate but do not restrict if not really neccessary.Take Google voice. I would happily alow it. It would only show that users would hate intrusive apps and Google would have to redesign it eventually.But why Apple has to make this decision for me? Wasn’t I able to take care of myself for years using PC/MAC? Are they affraid of competition?Restrictive policy made sense in the beggining, now it doesn’t.

  13. This whole blog entry is just bunny-pancake, especially about Jailbreaking. The author never jailbroke, and then dismisses it. Whatever! So, from an experienced jailbreaking geek, that being me, here’s some perspective.Why open the iPhone? Access to the file system and to what Apple considers ‘private APIs’. Example? WiFi sniffing, packet monitoring, better filtering/firewalling. In short, to keep Apple ‘honest’ about Steve’s promises of privacy of the enduser. How about access to the /etc/hosts file? The iPhone DOES have one. Yes, it’s about the geeks. Keeping the MBA / Marketing / Sales types *honest*. Because, as we all know, popular saying of Silly Valley, **SALES LIES**.HTML5 will *never* give auditors that kind of access to the internals of the iPhone, because it exists in the user and not the system space. And Apple would be IDIOTIC to extend HTML5 there. It’d be like giving a web page root access. E tu Windows?All this being said, Apple doesn’t need to do the opening here. Third parties do. And then Apple needs to, how do I put this delicately? BUTT OUT, except in cases of blatant piracy of their, or their AppStore Developers, I. P.

  14. @akatsukiCongratulations, you have already made his first attack argument. There is jailbreaking option and a sort of app store for such possibilities, but you say it is not clear whether Apple will ruin that in the future even though it has not for the last three years. That is half way through the third attack argument. Apparently, Mr. Reestman is very insightful.

  15. I agree, to some extent, but, as a commenter says; “The trolls are irrelevant”. So I’d recommend we don’t bother postulating 🙂

  16. I don’t find your criticisms at all compelling, Obviously if you aren’t selling through the App Store, you aren’t going to get promoted on it. And other sites will pop-up to take care of reviewing and promoting. Of course, the real issue is how does Apple collect its 30% (hint: it doesn’t and this is why there is not web app equivalence and why there will never be a sideload option)?The whole point of sideloading is that it is a ghetto. A ghetto where geeks can hang out and get apps that they want, like a Google Voice phone app. Or a New Yorker app that can have political satire. Or a swimsuit app that isn’t run by a large corporation because somehow Victoria’s Secret or Sports Illustrated isn’t just as trashy. Or porn. Let it be the redlight district, and, in fact, just be up front that is what it is going to be.You complain about the warnings, but that is exactly what the warnings are saying. Obviously jailbreak is one way to get it, but the problem with jailbreak is the ever present risk of Apple really screwing the jailbreaked phone somehow.I don’t expect Apple to let this through, and frankly I expect them to ignore it entirely. The App Store approval process is a joke where you have to guess at secret rules, not accidentally step on planned features, and basically invest a lot up front before rolling the dice – that would be easily fixable if they would take mock-ups and provide approval, but that won’t happen either because they’d be swamped.

  17. I think that if Apple allowed app installs from third-parties (“open”) there would be other marketplaces created. Certainly not the clout of iTunes, but the apps wouldn’t exactly be sitting in a room by themselves.I think Snell has a valid point about what the iPhone doesn’t “does.” I agree with you here, however, opening the app store won’t solve all of Apple’s problems. It likely will create net more problems.I think Apple could do itself a favor by being more transparent in the rules so that developers have a high degree of certainty knowing their app will get accepted. There seems to be a lot of gray areas that could use defining where Apple has discretion on non-technical appropriateness.

  18. I don’t see why jailbreaking isn’t already exactly what most of the complainers are looking for. Snell says, “open an alternate App Store after a bunch of warnings.” Isn’t that basically a description of Cydia? You can do anything you want to your iPhone, as long as you’re willing to undertake the hassle and forego official support. It seems to me Apple hasn’t gone out of their way to defeat this option. We are, after all, talking about someone’s who’s entrepreneurial cherry was broken selling blue boxes.I’m certainly aware that this solution won’t be acceptable to the people who are currently making a fuss, but I agree with others that there is no placating them.

  19. AdamC, I wouldn’t say it’s crap. His honest opinion. I may not agree with him but I still wouldn’t call it crap.

  20. Agreed. There’s nothing that would actually shut the anti-Apple crowd up. I know a guy who still argues TODAY that the iPhone and iPod aren’t very successful. He also thinks Apple should ‘just put Flash on the iPhone already’ and that the iPad is ‘just a big iPod Touch’. It’s impossible to have any kind of rational discussion with people like this, they’ll go to their graves hating everything Apple does.

  21. The point of side loading is to get the benefits of an environment-native Cocoa app, not the benefits of the App Store.

  22. It’s unfortunate that we’re getting sidetracked by Jason Snell’s poor choice of a thesis. Yes, it’s true that Apple will attract trolls for virtually all of its decisions, and giving an option to install “non-app store apps” would probably do little to shut up the trolls.But once we acknowledge this essential fact, we have to move on. Yeah, a ‘sideloading’ option for iPhone apps would give the trolls something else to troll about. So what? The trolls are irrelevant. The sideloading app should not be judged by how it may or may not be perceived, but by whether it is or is not a good idea.Sideloaded apps would be a great addition to the iPhone software universe. There’s no reason the OS couldn’t force them to abide by the same sandboxed rules as other applications, so security and malware isn’t much of a concern. Speaking as a Mac user somewhere in between the two extremes of the sliding scale between “Aunt Millie” and “Hideous Neckbearded Linux User,” I would welcome a way for apps not allowed in the app store to be available to me. Let’s not forget that there have been high-profile examples of extremely high-caliber, beautiful apps getting caught in approval hell.If anyone can give reasons for why this might be a bad thing for iPhone users or developers, please feel free to elucidate. I suspect Snell is being a bit of a concern troll, and deep down, he really wants it for the same reason I do: because it would be a GOOD THING.

  23. how about a 2nd “app store” – an open unsupported store. Use at your own risk type of thing.

  24. Tom, i am with you jason snell article is just crap. No matter what Apple does it will always attract criticism (rejecting the fart apps, tyrantical and later approved them, appstore is loaded with craps like fart apps ). I believe it is time for him to join arrington to start writing for goog and stop writing for and about the mac. A total loser who has created nothing of significant.

  25. Peter, And then get barraged with the criticisms I mentioned above. Snell’s piece was about shutting up critics; I believe it will do no such thing. Rather, it will provide critics more bullets for their guns.

  26. Actually, I agree with the “open” option.While I would agree that being “open” may create more critics, Apple has a simple answer for these critics: “It’s our store and we can choose what we carry.”This argument is used now, but the problem is that there is no other gateway. This means Apple has to be more open in their App Store and accept more crap. It’s really tough to argue Apple’s approach when somebody brings up Fart Apps, Tip Calculators, and the other dreck that stuffs the App Store.Again, create a way for developers to distribute their own Apps and Apple can go through their App Store and choose the “best” Apps. Rather than choosing among the hundreds of tip calculators, Apple can go through and figure out which one or two or three are worthwhile. They can insist on valid business licenses, web sites, no gaming the search fields, and a certain degree of support if you want to be in Apple’s store.

  27. Your three fictional arguments that would follow Apple opening up the iPhone in the way J.Snell suggests are absolutely spot on. I can almost hear and see them on the internet now. I couldn’t agree with your rebuttal more.

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