Countering the Perception That the iPhone OS Is Too Closed

Jason Snell calls for Apple to allow sideloading native iPhone apps:

I don’t think the company needs to stop controlling what apps get in the App Store. 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.

Most users will never find that setting. Many who do will be loath to turn it on. But by putting it there, Apple immediately shuts up every single claim that the iPhone isn’t open.

Personally, I’d welcome such a move, but I don’t think it would have the effect Snell envisions. Snell’s argument is that Apple should do this to nip the argument that the iPhone is too closed. But if Apple did exactly what Snell argues, critics would still harp on the closed App Store. iPhone critics have seldom let facts get in their way.

Earlier in the same article, Snell writes:

The other day I was talking to a colleague, a bright guy who obviously works in the technology and media industries, but isn’t on the technical side. He’s what I’d call a moderately informed tech consumer, and I was showing him 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.

Of course the iPad reads PDFs, I told him. He was surprised. Can I load my own videos and music on it, or only stuff I buy from Apple? Sure, I told him, you can load your videos and music. I managed to bat down every single concern he had about the device.

If there are people who think the iPad can’t read PDFs or play music and videos that aren’t purchased from the iTunes Store, then surely there would be people who’d think you can only install apps from the App Store even if sideloading were a supported option, as per Snell’s suggestion.

The question of whether the App Store is too closed is not what Snell is talking about. He’s talking about the iPhone OS being perceived as “too closed” even in areas where it is in fact wide open. The App Store is great and popular, but the iPhone OS is more than the App Store.

A better strategy would be for Apple to do a better job promoting the ways the iPhone already is open. Make it clear that you can play MP3 music that comes from anywhere. Make it clear you can play H.264 video from anywhere.

And, most importantly, Apple needs to do a better job emphasizing what HTML5 mobile web apps are capable of, and that such apps are completely open for both developers and users. To use the walled garden metaphor, Apple needs to make more people aware that right across the street from the App Store’s beautiful but tightly controlled and regulated walled garden, there’s a very nice public park, open to everyone.

A web app store, as per Eric Meyer’s suggestion I linked to earlier today, should not and will not come from Apple. Apple should host a directory of great HTML5 apps that work well on iPhones and iPads — and do a better job bragging about HTML5, WebKit, and the iPhone OS’s status as the best platform for completely open mobile web content.