Cancel Computer

Leo Laporte plays the “what if” game with the iPhone, more or less asking why anyone would buy a computer that didn’t support user-installable applications and was locked to one particular commercial network. He’s correct insofar as that the iPhone is, technically, a computer. And Apple could promote it as such. And, if they did, many of us — where by “us” I mean people like Leo, and me, and you, a reader of a site as nerdy as Daring Fireball — would be delighted.

But here’s the thing: Apple isn’t selling or promoting the iPhone as a general purpose handheld computer. So, much like with Macworld’s Rob Griffiths’s what does Apple want us to do if we want to develop and install third-party apps, buy another brand of smartphone? question, the answer really is that the iPhone, as of today, isn’t for you if you feel you must be able to install and modify software on it. There are all sorts of other devices that are, at heart, technically, computers, but which aren’t sold or promoted or marketed as such. Like say, TiVos. And iPods.

What’s different and weird and, I think, unique about the iPhone is that for a few weeks before the release of the 1.1.1 update, we got a taste of what the iPhone could be like as an open computing platform. But the fact that clever iPhone hackers figured out how to do it with the 1.0.x iPhone software in no way obligated Apple to support these techniques going forward.

Laporte asks:

What if the company that made the computer sent down an update that checked to see if you had installed your own applications and deleted them if so?

This is a common sentiment regarding the 1.1.1 update — that it deletes third-party applications. That’s not a fair description, though. All iPhone updates, including the earlier 1.0.1 and 1.0.2 updates, are installed as complete clean installations of the entire system. One of the advantages of a closed system is that it’s far easier to create upgrades for — a “just wipe the whole system clean and re-install the new one from scratch” installer is far easier to write than a “let’s carefully update only those files that are new and leave everything else, including third-party stuff we don’t even know about, in place” installer.

To argue that Apple should have left third-party apps and hacks installed is to argue that Apple should have expended some amount of engineering resources to support something they neither endorsed nor encouraged in the first place. You can argue that they should have done it anyway, on the grounds that it would have made iPhone hacking enthusiasts happy, but this line of argument logically leads all the way back to arguing that Apple should be endorsing, at least tacitly, the use of the iPhone as a general-purpose handheld computer.

Clearly Apple knew that the 1.1.1 update would remove any additional or modified iPhone software, and that it would block existing methods of restoring them. But, just as clearly, everyone involved with iPhone hacking, from the developers writing iPhone apps to the users installing them, was fully aware that this was going on through subversion.


Would you ever trust a company like that again?

That’s the wrong conclusion to draw from the 1.1.1 update. Frustrating? Disappointing? Sure. Foolish? Time will tell. But nefarious, dishonest, or even at all surprising? Not in the least. If anything, the lesson to be drawn is that Apple is quite trustworthy — iPhone 1.1.1 is and does exactly what Apple has claimed the iPhone is and does. To be trustworthy is to do what you say you will do; to do whatever someone else wishes you to do is to be obsequious.

Laporte draws a second analogy to a purchased cow:

Let’s say you’re selling me a cow. You tell me that that cow is being sold for the express purpose of making milk. I agree, and buy the cow.

Later I decide that I’d prefer to make cheese. You say that’s a violation of our agreement and kill my cow.

But that’s not fair at all. Apple didn’t kill or damage a single unlocked iPhone. They released a new software update which iPhone users had to agree to install, which could only be done after acknowledging a very strongly-worded warning stating that the update might render unlocked iPhones inoperable. The 1.1.1 update is not mandatory. Unlocked iPhones running the 1.0.2 software work as well today as they did a week ago.

It’s hard to work the concept of a “software update” into a cow analogy, but here goes: You willingly purchase a cow, which, the purveyor of said cow makes explicitly clear, is intended only to be used to produce milk. You buy it and figure out a way to make cheese. Two months later the purveyor of the cow offers you a pill, free of charge, which, if administered to the cow, will result in slightly better-tasting milk, but which pill comes with a stern and plainly worded warning that, if administered to a cow that had been used to produce cheese (which, recall, was made clear from the outset the cow was not intended for), the pill might kill the cow, and that, even if it doesn’t kill the cow, will prevent all previously known cheese-making hacks from working. Further, let’s stipulate that there is no medical or bovine pharmacological reason the pill could not have instead been engineered in such a way that it would enable the cow to produce the better-tasting milk and still allow the previously discovered cheese-producing hacks to continue unabated — that the reason for this frustrating limitation is, at best, marketing, and at worst, spite — and so that, in some way, the whole situation is, undeniably, at least somewhat shitty.

Regardless how strenuously you disagree with the decisions that led the upgrade pill to be engineered in this way, and with the anti-cheese-making restriction in the first place, the pill is what it is, and if you choose to administer this pill to your hacked-to-produce-cheese cow, it does not amount to the purveyor of said cow coming into your barn and killing it. It amounts to you killing your cow.

(And, again, for the record, your humble analogy-stretcher is himself quite enamored with the idea of allowing these clever cows to produce cheese.)