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Beauty and the Beast

iphone.jpgDamn, that iPhone is pretty.

I am primarily a Mac user, so I follow the annual announcements at Macworld fairly closely. This year, most folks expected Steve Jobs to unveil a phone, so when he announced it, few people were terribly surprised. But when he demonstrated it... geek lust heaven (or, as Brent at PvP put it, "Jesus has come back and he's a phone now.") The gestural interface, the Jonathan Ive design, the way it gets the little things right (like shutting off the touchscreen when you lift it to your ear), all of these inspired a near frenzy among a broad array of mac geeks, tech geeks and design geeks. It was just that cool.

Then I discovered something that turned this beauty into a nasty little beast.

The iPhone is a closed device. Users cannot install any applications on it, not even the little mobile Java apps that run on pretty much every phone with a color screen. This may not sound like a big deal; after all, the iPhone will do everything you need it to do already, right? And even if it doesn't, look how pretty it is!

Here are a couple of reasons why this is a big deal, from an Open the Future perspective:

  • It runs counter to one of the most important trends in the online and offline world right now: DIY culture. This is becoming a fairly common observation, so I won't spend too much time on it. In brief, the mixed and mashed contributions and creations of individuals drive innovation, and we're increasingly building a world (both online and off) that enables and encourages these contributions. From open source to "Web 2.0," Second Life digital LEGOs to Wikipedia, the future is being built by collaborative creation. A locked down system prevents the iPhone from being a part of that world, to its detriment, and to the detriment of its users.

  • It's dangerous to Apple and Cingular (really!) One of the reasons why Steve Jobs doesn't want to allow outside applications is that he doesn't want poorly-written (or malicious) programs to cause problems. As he says in Newsweek:

    You don’t want your phone to be an open platform,” meaning that anyone can write applications for it and potentially gum up the provider's network, says Jobs. “You need it to work when you need it to work. Cingular doesn’t want to see their West Coast network go down because some application messed up.”

    Here's the problem, Steve: keeping the system closed won't stop that from happening -- in fact, it makes it more likely. It's a dead certainty that the iPhone will be cracked, will be turned into a defacto open platform, whether through taking advantage of system or application flaws -- as was done with the just-as-"closed" Playstation Portable -- or through simply turning it into a Linux box -- as has been done with the original iPod. A security plan cannot be based on the concept that nobody will do the obvious.

    Once the iPhone was cracked open, people who would have been inclined to use it to do nasty things to the Cingular network (or other users on that network) would still be able to do so -- and regular users would have no tools at their disposal to counter or circumvent that threat, other than those from Apple and Cingular. Which one takes the blame (and possible lawsuits)? That's a situation that's absolutely ripe with the possibility of finger-pointing, instead of solutions.

    At the same time, the potential for accidental damage to the network is greater in this scenario, as non-malicious hardware hackers and garage programmers poke around, trying to figure out what the different components and programming interfaces do. A home-brewed application that should be just fine might in fact be disastrous, simply because of a hidden undocumented feature. Realistically, while the chances of this happening are pretty slim, they're still greater than if the iPhone was open to developers, with officially documented interfaces and commands.

    In short, a closed iPhone will be no less subject to malice, and probably more subject to accident, than an open iPhone.

    The iPhone is still six months away, so there's still time for policies and technologies to change. Given the way Jobs talks in interviews in both Newsweek and the New York Times, however, he may be digging in his heels on the matter, holding his position even when it's no longer tenable. In that case, Apple may be in for a painful lesson in the dynamics of the new world.

  • Comments

    Net neutrality opponents like to say NN policy is a olution for a problem that doesn't exist.

    But of course it exists - just look at the phone networks. I forget who first pointed this out (Felten? Lessig?), but the iPhone had to be closed in order to best resemble the network it was designed to operate in.

    Making the excuse that the phone had to be closed to make it secure or reliable implies that the Internet isn't //and that's OK//. It isn't stable enough, and we should fix it so that VoIP actually works.

    We don't want our PCs or Internet "gummed up" either, but the solution is not locking it down. We've already seen how well that works for the phone networks.

    You might be interested in Clint Ecker's commentary over at Ars Technica:

    "I worked for T-Mobile as an RF and GSM engineer for several years. I took classes and I know the standards and signaling of GSM, GPRS, and EDGE down to the 1s and 0s. I know how the timers, protocols, and messages get passed through the various layers. I dealt with thousands of situations dealing with mobiles, towers, and a menagerie of arcane cellular hardware you'll never see in your life. There is absolutely no way that a single app on a single phone (or installed on thousands of phones) could accidentally destroy a network."

    The link is here: http://arstechnica.com/journals/apple.ars/2007/1/12/6597

    I think you're completely on the mark on this issue, Apple is becoming the new microsoft it seems, or at least has the ambitions to be so in the small niches that it dominates.

    Apple wants to use it's dominant market postion to further increase it's share of the market, if it could, it would force it's users to use itunes and only itunes.

    And there by continue to make huge profits from it's user base.

    I think it all comes down to profitability, homebrew and open source makers produce some of the most astounding and useful pieces of software, and open source has the potential to completely blow away apple's offerings and unlock the iphone to it's true potential. And apple is afraid of that.


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