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.