With a partner like Apple, who needs competitors?

Apple's contempt for iPhone users and developers keeps pushing the limits of credulity. It is exemplified by its response to the FCC inquiry into the Google Voice app:

FCC: Why did Apple reject the Google Voice application for iPhone and remove related third-party applications from its App Store?

Apple: Contrary to published reports, Apple has not rejected the Google Voice application, and continues to study it. The application has not been approved because, as submitted for review, it appears to alter the iPhone's distinctive user experience by replacing the iPhone's core mobile telephone functionality and Apple user interface with its own user interface for telephone calls, text messaging and voicemail. Apple spent a lot of time and effort developing this distinct and innovative way to seamlessly deliver core functionality of the iPhone.

At first glance what Apple has written doesn't even appear to be an answer to the question. Apple has, surprisingly, not claimed that it's protecting users—from harm, or from confusing apps. It only alludes to the fact that it has previously cited "duplicating existing functionality" (read: competing with Apple) as grounds for rejection.

Now, it is Apple's platform to mold as they wish; if consumers get a gratis dialer app either way, what's the harm? Why would Apple object to third-party developers making the iPhone better? Apple recognizes that it can't constrain them from subsequently bringing equivalent functionality to Android or WebOS or whatnot. What if there comes a day when the most commonly used apps (dialer, browser, etc.) have feature parity cross-platform? Who would buy an iPhone then? Many people, to be sure, just not quite as many as before.

But instead of staying competitive by making great software, Apple is doing pretty much the opposite. It is trying to forestall competition the only way it knows how: by crippling the iPhone's software—barring entire classes of applications—to obfuscate comparison between its products and competitors'. The result? There's a whole world of apps now that the iPhone just won't run, to say nothing of the apps that never get written because development is such a crapshoot. Users have to pay the cost for Apple's decisions every day now.

To add insult to injury, Apple is eager to remind everyone just how much "time and effort" its engineers spent on the iPhone's dialer. Does Apple think so little of its users that it considers its own good intentions justification enough to override users' requests? This isn't elementary school. You do not get points for "effort."

This madness is even codified in the iPhone SDK developer agreement. Native apps are forbidden from carrying out instructions on behalf of users ("executable code" or "interpreted code"), [1] lest users actually get to choose what they want to do. From an engineering standpoint, code is everywhere—web browsers, office programs, anything with macros, even calculators all have "interpreted code" at the core of their functionality. It is striking that Apple actually mandates that apps subvert their users instead of empowering them.

This situation is rather surreal.

Apple does not even try to hide its contempt for its customers. The iPhone is a device that only allows choosing from a circumscribed set of carefully enumerated functions. Apple only thinly veils the fact that it despises third-party developers, who are ostensibly its "partners". If you develop for the iPhone, you have to deal with a company that believes it has more to gain from hindering you than from helping you.

I am not suggesting that Apple's behavior is illegal, or even incomprehensible (the shareholders must love it)—merely abhorrent. We choose the world we want to live in, and this is not something I want to be a part of, not when there are so many worthy alternatives.

Yet, Apple's candor is nothing if not refreshing. Most companies don't openly talk about the mechanics of their anti-competitive practices. They speak of protecting consumers from confusion, or keeping prices low. Not Apple. There is no dissembling here. Apple freely admits that it will do whatever it takes to keep competitors from getting a foothold, no matter the cost to its own customers. When we consider that fact, it seems that the App Store is not the opaque and inscrutable system that many have claimed it is. What Apple has done has been no more, and no less, than what it has said it would do.

[1] 3.3.2 An Application may not itself install or launch other executable code by any means[...]. No interpreted code may be downloaded and used in an Application except for code that is interpreted and run by Apple's Published APIs and built- in interpreter(s).

You will have to see Wikileaks(!) for the full agreement.


  1. So I do agree the app store is a major screw up, and has burned a lot of developer goodwill in it's lack of transparency, especially when it comes to the approval process.

    However, I don't think anyone should really be surprised about Apple wanting it their way-- this is how they've always behaved, and to be honest, I think it's why we do in fact buy their stuff.

    Up until a few years ago, I was anti-Apple, pro Linux, but after having seen what can be done by enforcing constraints on the system rather then leaving it wide open, it's clear that something with that system is right. Mac OS X is _tight_ and polished. Little things are sorted out, it does what you expect, and if the price for that is a little customizability , so be it.

    I'd say that's even _more_ important with the phone market. Android is self-imploding due to the fragmented nature of it's releases (half a dozen versions on a dozen different phones and it's all up to the carrier to update?). Apple knows the limits of the device, and are trying to make sure the user has a decent experience. Nintendo has always done similar things in the game industry, and as much as that can bite them, it has also done them a service. Overall the games are of high quality, even if they do lack some of the more racy titles.

    Anyways, as Apple's star rises and gains more market share in all it's things, this does become a much more serious issue. It's unfortunate I think, because it will mean worse products. Microsoft wasn't allowed to include a browser with it's OS, but somehow Mac OS X can include a sound editor, a photo editor, email, media center, etc etc etc? Perhaps at that point we should worry, for now I'm happy with my computer that "just works"

  2. I agree that there is definitely _something_ "right" about how OS X is done. For making the system work in a largely sane and consistent way out of the box, Apple should be commended (and other software makers should try to emulate it in this respect!). But for making it all but impossible to escape from the "defaults", Apple deserves the beration it's getting. These are two logically separate notions that should not be conflated. The high polish of Apple products is praiseworthy, but their second-guessing of users' intentions requires a *really* good justification, which they don't have.

    Yet, supposing that Apple's philosophy is unchangeable, if we have to choose between having both good defaults and a locked-down architecture, and having neither, I would choose the latter in a heartbeat, and here's why:

    Apple is the beneficiary of a long and rich history of freedom and openness in software. Yet they are setting up roadblocks to ensure that no one can build upon their own products in this way.

    The rising popularity of Mac OS has been, to some extent, facilitated by the increasing capabilities of web browsers, leading to platform-independence for many common apps. If Microsoft had had the technical ability to prevent Firefox from running on Windows, Apple (and the world at large) would have been much the poorer for it. Yet, Apple's own policies today prevent Firefox mobile or anything resembling a full-featured web browser from being installed on the iPhone.

    Mac OS too, though it contains many original elements, has also borrowed substantially from those that came before-- from the foundations (the kernel, WebKit) all the way up to the chrome. Yet, if the tables were turned, and Apple had written the BSD kernel and KHTML, do you believe they would have made it possible for someone else to write a whole new OS or a new browser based on them today? I find it strange that OS X can implement virtual desktops, or tabbed browsing, but Apple will sue Palm for implementing pinch-to-zoom.

    This double standard is quite irksome.

    While I do appreciate your sentiment, I think the "price" people pay for Apple's products is larger than you've suggested. Apple gets to pick and choose from ideas that have been implemented elsewhere and which held their own under scrutiny. Many of the innovations in computing we take for granted today came about because people were able to do things with their systems that were fundamentally different from their intended uses. Yet, ironically, Apple has used them to build a platform on which this innovation could likely never have happened in the first place!

    The fact that Apple has made things "just work" is admirable, but it did not happen in a vacuum. The true price of Apple products is not just a little customizability but the cost of foregone innovation.