Why can't you add software to the iPhone? Because of Windows.

Apple's taking a fair amount of heat from developers and some customers for its decision not to open the iPhone to third party applications. So far Apple's explanations for why it made that decision are pretty lame.

Newsweek quotes Steve Jobs:

"You don’t want your phone to be an open platform....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."

That spawned the following sarcastic response on the Palm Entpreneurs Forum mailing list (a forum for mobile software companies):

"So is there an API for taking down the network? I realize it's probably not void TakeDownNetwork() but something like void KeepNetworkUp(int nSeconds) and it's up to every app to not call that function with nSeconds <= 0. Seems like disabling that function might be the first place to start. And if it doesn't exist then not worrying about it would be a good course of action."

You may not get that joke if you're not a programmer, but the point is that millions of Palm Treos and Windows Mobile smartphones have been sold with the ability to add third party applications and Cingular hasn't batted an eye (and its network hasn't gone down either).

So Steve is making up an excuse. The question is, what's his real motivation? Two leading theories are:

--Apple wants to ensure a perfect user experience, and doesn't trust developers not to mess it up.

--There are weaknesses or missing pieces in the iPhone's operating system that would be vulnerable to damage by third party apps.

The catch is that both of those could easily be fixed if Apple really wanted to. If it wants a perfect experience, it could allow third party apps with certification. Or it could allow apps but not publicize them, which means the average user would never see them but would allow those who want apps to use them. As for the stability of the phone's OS, Apple has been developing the iPhone for two and a half years, and the software is based on Mac OS X. I really doubt the iPhone OS is a fragile hack.

I want to propose an alternate explanation. I'm not at all sure it's true, but it fits the evidence, and it makes sense given Apple's history.

I think this is not about controlling the iPhone's user experience. I think it's about controlling the iPhone's users.

To explain what I mean, I have to give a brief history of the Macintosh computer, from Steve Jobs' point of view:

1. Apple pioneers the Lisa and then Macintosh with a revolutionary interface that Xerox had been too stupid to commercialize.
2. Apple works like a dog to evangelize and co-promote thousands of insanely great Macintosh apps.
3. Microsoft uses its Apple II products to extort from Apple the right to clone the Mac OS.
4. Microsoft produces Windows.
5. All those software developers, whose products Apple helped to promote, port their applications to Windows.
6. Macintosh market share ends up south of 5%.

So here Steve is 23 years later, with another breakthrough computing platform that has a revolutionary user interface. He said very prominently at the iPhone announcement that the new device is heavily patented and no one is going to clone this one. Why did he go out of his way to say that? What does that tell you about his state of mind? Why else would he raise the issue of cloning, unless he was remembering the history of Macintosh and Windows?

And if he's remembering the Macintosh, what other vulnerabilities does he want to fix?

I think Steve doesn't want any of his differentiation being copied anywhere, and that includes the third party apps. If I'm right, the iPhone will eventually be opened to selected third party applications, but developers will be prohibited (either via technical means or via contract) from porting the resulting applications to any other smartphone. The iPhone economy will look like the developer base for one of the gaming platforms, heavily controlled by the platform owner.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I'll be comfortable using a phone with 3rd party apps loaded on it (even though having the option is inherently a good idea). We all know from computing experience that no matter how well one controls for the compatibility of apps designed by 3rd party, they are rarely close to perfect.
The last thing I want to happen to my phone when I'm using it is for it to crash. I'm prepared to let that happen on my palm/pocket PC, but not on a phone.

Samir said...

I've had a Treo for 3 years and haven't downloaded anything on it except for a chat client. I had the Google Maps app but removed it because it wasn't all that stable.

Downloading apps or doing anything else but checking email and calling people on a 2.5G phone is just not fun.

Steve Jobs's view of the world is that this is an appliance, not a platform. Fair enough. He wants to play in the low-margin appliance business - his choice.

Building an open platform takes guts, and he doesn't have the stomach for that fight.

Tony said...

Jobsian think:
We got this iTunes e-comm framework in every desktop of every iPod owner. Hell even Sony is trying to copy that with that E-ink reader.

The iPod is kinda popular: shuffle me, nanoNike, videoBono -That is a lot of portals into their bank accounts.
Let's add movies and bring in my friends at Disney and now Paramount. We'll go all NetFlixy on em.
What about those web games from PopCap a la Astraware. Let's throw in Bejeweled! Who doesn't play Bejeweled?
We need integration with those Plasma and LCD commodity screens Asia is parachuting in and do a home entertainment play with iTV.
Now we're talking, but what about mobiles? Danger started out controlled and closed and good ol' Woz loves it - no one's huffy there. I think we can do a play here too. Build it so compelling that the iPod generation will jump at buying OSX apps on iTunes.
Entertainment, Communications, Information, the holy trinity all from Us.
and Information
Repeat after me..
Do you get it?

I guess ol Jobs was at PalmSource circa 1999, no 2000?


Legodude522 said...

I'll have to go with theory number 2 and Cingular probably wants Apple to lock out VoIP.

Winston said...

As for now, I'll be better off getting a Treo 680 with iPhony installed. I bet that's a better and more compelling solution for my need than getting an iPhone.

Jason Devitt said...

While this may be a concern for Apple, I believe that by the far most important reason for restricting third-party applications is to maximize service revenue. More on this here:


Anonymous said...

Problem with Steve Jobs is that he thinks he's the only bright person on the planet..... WRONG

Chris Dunphy said...

"The iPhone economy will look like the developer base for one of the gaming platforms, heavily controlled by the platform owner."

Gaming platforms are heavily controlled, true. But a lot of games still manage to come out for multiple platforms. Madden, for example.

Only a very few selected flagship games and characters (Sonic, Mario, Master Chief...) are ever locked to just a single platform.

Apple is being foolish here. They are taking control way beyond the realm of what makes strategic sense.

And they are giving up the opportunity to turn every small and medium sized developer with an innovative idea into iPhone evangelists. All that creativity is going to find other outlets now...

My further thoughts on the iPhone are posted here:

- chris // www.radven.net

Michael Mace said...

Good comments, gang. Thanks very much.

There's no way to read Steve's mind, so we'll probably never know what the real reason(s) were. But what's most significant to me is that Apple could have made third party applications work if it really wanted to. Maybe with some serious restrictions on them, but it could have done something.

I think the fact that Apple didn't choose to put in that effort tells you that Steve either feels third party apps are not important for these customers, or that he actively dislikes them. Either way, it's pretty sobering for mobile app developers.

I ran across a very interesting post discussing some of these issues.

anne said...

Thanks, Thanks, Thanks

Anonymous said...

Just in case some of you missed it. There will be 3rd party apps. They will not be able to be distributed around by developers. They will have to go through Apple.


Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the link, Anonymous, but I should point out that the author of the article is speculating on what he thinks Apple will do, not reporting anything that Apple announced.