This uncompromising attitude, unfortunately, extends beyond usability. They are the ultimate corporate control freaks. Their secrecy is legendary, punishing product leaks with extreme prejudice – even, reportedly, leading to a suicide in China. This controlling mentality is now moving far beyond the lifecycle of the product, and on to what you can actually do with it once you bring it home.
Most of the world was still getting used to the idea of a phone as a computer when Apple introduced the iPhone. Developers were frustrated by the lack of ability to develop applications for such a sexy new platform. Therefore, we were all overjoyed when the development tools were finally announced along with the App Store. The fact that every application had to be approved by Apple and downloaded through iTunes may have given a few people pause, but it was seen as a justifiable, if arguable, policy to ensure the stability of what was, after all, a phone.
The App Store gold rush was quickly tempered by alarming problems with this approval process. It was felt by many to be capricious, arbitrary and skewed too far towards Apple’s interests. Developers were playing “App Store roulette” every time they submitted an application, afraid it would fall afoul of guidelines barring adult content, incorrect use of the code libraries, or be too close to one of Apple’s own applications. Although development continued at a rapid pace, many developers gave up in frustration. Even Google was a victim of the capricious nature of the App Store, with Google Voice being rejected for “duplicating built-in iPhone features”. As a developer, whose livelihood might depend on revenue from the App Store, the notion that your application could be pulled at any time for any reason can keep you awake at night.
The latest kerfuffle is once again to do with Apple’s insistence on tightly controlling any adult-oriented content on the iPhone. This New York Times piece has a good summary of what has happened, with thousands of applications disappearing overnight. Even before this, Apple’s policies regarding such material have been ridiculous, with dictionaries being rejected or censored for containing obscenity, something even a primary school would be unlikely to do. Since Apple introduced a 17+ category for applications, unexpurgated dictionaries are back, but they carry a stern warning that the content may be unsuitable for minors.
Just who is being protected from what? What harm could the bikini-babe applications do? (I have a theory on that in a moment, and it’s not the little children who are being shielded.) The vast majority of iPhone users are adults, and by denying them even the most harmless of adult applications, Apple is being insultingly controlling and appears paternalistic. We could chalk this up to American puritanism and laugh about it, but you can’t simply go and buy your apps from a more liberal App Store down the road. Unless you risk your warranty by jailbreaking your phone, you’re trapped for as long as you continue using the phone.
All this made even more absurd by the availability of the Safari web browser on the device, which can, and will always be able to, browse any content from the New York times to hard-core pornography. But be careful, lest your Chinese dictionary contain a profanity!
In any case, the end result for iPhone users is that we’re left with a marketplace that is highly sanitised, rigidly controlled and geared tightly to further Apple’s own interests. Compare this to your computer, where you can download and run any application you wish, even if it competes with Apple, and even if it contains racy content. But what is a computer?
The launch of the iPad, which follows the exact same application distribution model, has made many people uneasy. At once a general-purpose computer and a locked-down appliance, it inhabits a grey area between the iPhone and the Mac. What if, as some fear, this is the future of computers, at least from Apple? It’s worrying for developers, but should be worrying to any user who wants the freedom to do what they please with their computer. Our computers are such a vital part of our work and social lives, do you want a large corporation to have veto power over what goes on there?
One theory to explain the puritanical attitude by Apple is that they are going hard after the educational market in the USA. If true, it’s hardly a satisfying explanation. I don’t want a computer that allows only applications and content that would pass a lowest-common-denominator test in the U.S. public school system.
This is a worrying trend. Maybe I don’t want apps that jiggle on my computer, but I sure as hell don’t want anybody telling me I can’t have them.