Apple, Open Your Phone | iLounge Article

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Apple, Open Your Phone

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By Jeremy Horwitz

Editor-in-Chief, iLounge
Published: Monday, May 14, 2007
Articles Categories: Editorials

Should the iPhone be opened to third-party software? We’ve heard the arguments against it: Apple wants to guarantee a universally excellent iPhone user experience, and protect its partners’ data networks. Since it can’t fully control how third-party applications will look and perform on iPhone, the company has suggested that the right strategy is to lock them out - just as it did, largely, on the iPod.

This could have been a dead issue. Apple CEO Steve Jobs in January apparently foreclosed the possibility of third-party application development. But in comments several days ago, he opened the door a crack, noting that the company was “wrestling with” whether to permit non-Apple programs to join the ones we’ve seen already for iPhone.

In our view, it’s time for this particular wrestling match to end—in favor of allowing third-party developers to have access to what we’d call a “sandbox.” This would be a clearly defined, limited area of the iPhone’s resources; a place where new applications could run without crashing the device, stealing significant processing power from its other features, or doing things that Apple appears to be concerned about, like hanging one of its partners’ networks. Perhaps the sandbox would be its own icon on the iPhone’s main menu - like the Extras feature of an iPod - which would bury all the potentially ugly third-party icons one screen below the main menu.

What’s the point of giving developers a sandbox to play in rather than full access to iPhone’s chips? The answer is simple: despite the risk of hacks and other problems, third-party development inevitably improves new products. And it can sell them, too. That’s why Apple typically gives developers months or years of lead time before its new operating system releases; people make purchases based at least as much on third-party software (see, e.g. Adobe Creative Suite and Microsoft Office) as on a computer’s looks or operating system. Sure, handheld devices might be different, but they might also be the future of computers, and no one wants a computer without applications.

Apple could also offer a reward for developers who play nicely in the sandbox: the opportunity to see especially well-made third-party applications promoted to optional main menu status. This way, anyone could make iPhone-ready applications, but Apple and its users could clamor to promote especially good ones to the main page. To encourage innovation from all quarters, developers should not have to pay iPhone software development licensing fees in order to see their applications promoted optionally to the main screen - the decision should be based on merit.

There’s a reason for that. Having watched the iPod accessory economy grow from almost nothing to a massive, Apple-licensed, billion-plus-dollar business, we’re keenly aware that Apple wants to make money on iPod and now iPhone add-ons. But unlike tangible accessories, third-party software development doesn’t necessarily offer instant per-unit profits; instead, cool new programs generate word-of-mouth buzz, and eventually create a critical mass of reasons for new people to consider buying Apple hardware. Just as with Macs, cool third-party applications will eventually sell iPhones—no doubt about it.

The alternative? Watch the iPhone’s software development become like the iPod’s—highly limited, in what appears to be a constant struggle for developers to create anything other than pre-HyperCard-quality Notes software. Despite developers’ best efforts, iPod software has barely taken off or generated the sort of buzz it could have. Let’s not see that happen again; everyone wants to see Apple’s portable devices become as useful as possible, and providing a sandbox for developers would be a smart, easy way to do this.

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Comments

1

Great post Jeremy.

Anyone from the GSM world knows however that Apple is full of crap when it talks about “hanging” an operators network. Could someone explain this to me please. I design cell phone networks for money and I have yet to see a so-called “killer ” app. Net work killer that is. Bandwidth of GSM or cell networks is highly prioritized and monitored. There is no way that a million sudden downloads via Limewire, over a cell network will crash it. If anything, all data will be minimized but voice calls will continue to roll along. You can not crash as in bring down cell networks. You can however cause a minimization of services and this is planned sometimes and normal in some cases. This happens quite often during New Years, Christmas, Ramadan, Yom Kipur, etc…. Apple is pulling the leg of those that do not know better.

Posted by Don Trammell on May 14, 2007 at 12:08 PM (PDT)

2

I’m truly surprised by all this hand-wringing (unless it’s all intentional). Widgets should run fine in a confined area of (what I call) Mac OS X Lite.

Posted by LeeSmith2 on May 14, 2007 at 12:37 PM (PDT)

3

Sound bite-ready explanation aside, it’s probably not literal crashing of the network that Apple is concerned over; more like “weighing it down” with the tremendous data demands of high-bandwidth applications, including the prospect of using iPhone as a Mac/PC modem, and so on. Plus, EDGE isn’t a strong enough performer at its peak to do justice to certain of iPhone’s data features without heavy optimization; one wonders just how much that data network will be able to push.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on May 14, 2007 at 12:47 PM (PDT)

4

Dashboard widgets would seem like a perfect sandbox for iPhone development.

Regardless, third party apps can be essential. If there are 30 features that each represent requirements of 1% of the potential iPhone userbase, and these are not met by the built-in software, people will buy other phones.

Allowing third-party software extends the potential size of your user base. It’s simple.

Posted by mattwardfh in Texas on May 14, 2007 at 12:50 PM (PDT)

5

Ah, okay. However I am living in Europe, Finland to be exact, and we have 3G everywhere. On the whole European networks are much more advanced than US networks. I can’t really see much of an issue with the iPhone here. Even in the US, the network optimization scripts will not let data “weigh” down the network. It will simply prioritize the traffic loads.

Posted by Don Trammell on May 14, 2007 at 1:15 PM (PDT)

6

Couple things to note - US unlike most European countries where marketing to the citizens of the capital means you hit 70% of the population you want - also socially differently so some features that Euros find useful, we have laptops or home computers to take care of - if nothing else, we don’t really ride trains or public transportation (except in a few cities) and a huge percentage of 16-18 years old drive themselves ... not “more advanced” or better, just different.

Also keep in mind, most previous smartphones needed software because the included software was crap. With the iphone, it’s too early to tell if everyhing will be useful but we know that’s definitely not the case with apps out there now.

Posted by jbelkin on May 14, 2007 at 4:47 PM (PDT)

7

The iPhone will (almost certainly) replace my dear Palm Treo 650, just because I love the look & feel of Apple’s devices. However, one of the Treo’s main features IS third party software. Like TomTom for GPS navigation, BugMe for notes & sketches, DateBk and other PIM apps or many others. I really do hope Apple will open the system, while at the same time taking care that third party software does not harm the device in any way, as - I must admit - happens on my Treo sometimes. So I’d fully understand, even prefer, Apple supervising the distribution of additional iPhone software.

Posted by icoco on May 16, 2007 at 9:18 AM (PDT)

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