Forever Is a Long Time

Rob Griffiths, in a piece for the Macworld Editors Weblog titled “iPhone 1.0 Forever”:

Unlike most Apple software updates, I held off on running this one until there were some field reports about exactly what happened. Once those reports started trickling in, I came to a painful but obvious conclusion: I will never install the 1.1.1 update on my iPhone.

I’ve chosen not to upgrade because I value the productivity, entertainment, and customization abilities offered by the third-party applications I’ve added to my iPhone.

Me, on the other hand, I didn’t hesitate to upgrade my iPhone. The third-party hacks were fun to play with, but there isn’t a single one that I miss. Not one. (Well, other than my own, and even that one doesn’t really matter given how lame the Notes app is regardless of the display font.) The closest I found to useful was Craig Hockenberry’s iPhone-native Twitterrific — but even that one, in its current state, is more of a killer proof-of-concept than a finished killer app.

But it’ll be interesting to see how many people, like Griffiths, are sticking with 1.0.2 for this reason — and whether development efforts will continue, even though they can only, at least for now, target iPhones running the old 1.0.2 OS. My guess is that until — and unless — hackers succeed in figuring out a way to access the file system of 1.1.1 iPhones, the underground development community is going to wither. I also suspect most iPhone owners have already upgraded to 1.1.1.

Griffiths continues:

I also understand that the new encrypted communications between the iPhone and iTunes may very well have been necessary to prevent SIM unlock programs, which directly impact Apple and AT&T revenue, from being created. I fully believe that Apple has the right to do what it needs to do to protect its revenue, and that of its partners.

Still, with that understanding, I have to ask…what was Apple thinking?

Apple was thinking exactly what Griffiths wrote in his own preceding paragraph — that they needed to close the unofficially opened access to the iPhone file system because people were using it to unlock iPhones from Apple’s partner phone networks. That the 1.1.1 upgrade both breaks SIM-unlocking and third-party applications comes down to the same underlying reason: the closing of known techniques of accessing the iPhone file system. In fact, my guess is that the 1.1.1 update doesn’t actually break compatibility with the third-party apps themselves — if you could install them, my guess is they’d work just fine. It’s just that (a) the upgrade to 1.1.1 reinstalls the entire OS, thus removing any third-party apps already installed; and (b) there’s no longer any known way to reinstall third-party apps. (The 1.0.2 and 1.0.1 updates also reinstalled the entire OS — it’s just easier that way.)

Admittedly, for all we know, even if hackers had never figured out a way to SIM-unlock the original iPhone 1.0 OS, Apple still might have closed access to the iPhone file system in the 1.1.1 update. For example, it’s worth noting that the iPod Touch, which has no SIM card or network-carrier exclusivity, is locked in apparently the same way as the 1.1.1 iPhone. But hypotheticals aside, we do know that the 1.0 iPhones were SIM-unlocked. And if you think Apple could have simply let that be without breaking the contracts they’ve signed guaranteeing exclusivity to their carrier partners around the world, you’re nuts.

Back to Griffiths:

What I don’t understand is that Apple apparently doesn’t see any upside to allowing third party applications on the iPhone. This confuses me, because an active third-party development community can only help, not hurt, Apple’s bottom line.

That’s not a valid conclusion from Apple’s actions. It’s likely, and at the very least possible, that everyone at Apple sees some upside to allowing third-party apps on the iPhone — but that they aren’t yet technically ready to do so, and/or that they think the downsides outweigh the upsides. It’s foolish to argue that there aren’t any trade-offs whatsoever, most obviously that perhaps so long as the iPhone is open to third-party apps, it’s also open, or at least more open, to SIM-unlocking. You can argue that Apple should allow it anyway, but you can’t argue that that’s not a trade-off.

Back to Griffiths:

I think Apple blew it here, and blew it in a big way. Instead of embracing and extending the development of third-party applications, it seems they’ve gone in the opposite direction: to make it as hard as possible for third-party applications to exist.

If it’s true that Apple has no plans to ever allow third-party software development for the iPhone, maybe they have blown it. (And maybe not — although while I personally hope to see Apple officially open up the iPhone, I don’t think they need to. I think the iPhone could be a popular, profitable, long-term platform while remaining closed to developers.) But that’s an enormous “if”, and one that no one outside Apple’s executive team knows the answer to today.

It’s entirely possible that Apple is committed to opening up the iPhone to development but that they aren’t yet ready, and, as per their usual policy, are keeping their mouths shut in the meantime.

The idea that Apple has screwed over or even somehow been rude to the grassroots iPhone developer community is absurd. Apple never asked for nor encouraged iPhone software development, and the fact that it happened anyway put Apple under zero obligation to support it.

One last bit from Griffiths:

Of course, consumers still do have a choice, but that choice is to purchase a competing brand’s smart phone. Is that what Apple really wants us to do?

Yes, actually. If “third-party software development” is one of your requirements for a phone, buying something other than an iPhone is exactly what Apple wants you to do. Just like if you “require” a hardware keyboard, compatibility with proprietary Microsoft Exchange email servers, freely-customizable ringtones, removable faceplates, or any other features or capabilities the iPhone lacks.

There’s only one way to pressure Apple into opening up iPhone development, and it isn’t by developing underground iPhone apps. It’s by not buying iPhones. Money talks, and right now, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of people willing to give Apple money in exchange for a completely closed iPhone.