iPhone App Store: Developers Get Paid for Users' Lost Freedom
Unless you've been living in a cave for the past two weeks (one without television or radio, Internet access, cell phone coverage, a newspaper subscription or friends who visit), you've heard about Apple's iPhone 3G and the App Store that accompanies it. Yes, the Steve Jobs has finally allowed users to download third party applications, and developers have the chance to get paid for their work. But is this worth the cost of creating a closed-software ecosystem in which Apple and, by proxy, AT&T have total control?
On July 11, Apple released the iPhone 3G and opened the App Store to users, making third party applications officially available on the iPhone and iPod touch for the first time. At launch, 24% of applications were free, but that number dropped to 20% within a week. Most apps are now $.99 but reach up to $449 for either of two professional financial applications. Apple has made a software development kit available for free on their site. Anyone can register to download it and, after receiving Apple's seal of approval, distribute their free applications on the App Store without paying a dime. For a $99 charge, developers can sell their applications in the App Store for a price they set, and earn 70% of the sales (Apple keeps the rest).
At first glance, this looks like a win-win-win situation: consumers can expand the functionality of their devices, and many useful applications are available for free; developers have the chance to earn some money and distribute applications without having to create a web site and pay for bandwidth; and Apple can point to a large developer base as evidence of its increasing market dominance, feature the most popular applications for marketing purposes, and rake in 30% of App Store sales, all while kicking back and enjoying an iCocktail. After closer inspection, however, readers will see this model changes the relationship between operating system developers, software developers and end users that has allowed competition and innovation to flourish in the computing marketplace.
Stalin versus the Bush Administration
Compared to the previous model for mobile applications and services, where telecommunications companies dictated to phone manufacturers what applications and services would be allowed on their networks, and users could only access content funneled through prescribed channels, Apple's developer-centric model appears practically open source. But comparing the old model with Apple's is like comparing a totalitarian dictatorship with a hegemonic oligarchy: citizens have little power in either model. Apple's restrictions on the SDK deny users tools the device can handily provide. Applications cannot access music or video on the device, nor can they access some core functions of the operating system, preventing applications from running in the background or enhancing existing OS functions. The SDK agreement additionally gives Apple final say over whether or not an application is featured in the App Store at all (it'll be a cold day in Cupertino when Firefox is offered in the App Store), and allows them to terminate an application's license at any time. If, for any reason, Apple decides they no longer want users to have access to a developer's application, they can pull the plug on it.
A more useful comparison for understanding the problems presented by the iPhone SDK and App Store would be this: Most users wouldn't think of allowing Apple to dictate which applications they could or could not run on their iMac or MacBook, so why would they give Apple so much power over their iPhone or iPod? Traditionally, OS developers (Apple & Microsoft, for example) have made application development tools available to the community without requiring developers to seek approval to distribute their applications. Apple claims it maintains strict control over the App Store to ensure the stability, security and quality of applications, but users can download and run any program they want on their Mac computer without an Apple guarantee of its stability, security or quality. In the desktop software model, the responsibility of the OS developer is to make a secure and stable platform, and that of the software developer is to make a quality product. The "electronic hand" of the free marketplace allows users to sort out which applications are worth installing and using, and which should be trashed. There is no need for either Steve Jobs or Steve Ballmer to play the roll of benevolent dictator and certify applications before users can install them. The developer community and users must be careful here. If they allow Apple's model for software distribution to become the new standard, it will be at the cost of innovation and users' freedom to chose.
Take a step outside the device. Thousands of organizations and netizens have joined the fight to protect net neutrality on your desktop, but the right to net neutrality applies to your mobile device too. This is critical, as mobile web access is increasing exponentially. If users want access to the full functionality of the web that their devices can provide, we'll have to do better than Apple's current model for access and application development.
Get Out of Jail Free
So Apple's model is restrictive (some might say anti-competitive). What can you do? Almost a year ago, the iPhone Dev Team hacked iPhone firmware 1.0.2, allowing users to install third party applications in direct violation of the iPhone's user license agreement. The hack provided root access to the iPhone, giving developers free range to use any aspect of the iPhone's OS. Although unlicensed, the Installer application provided users access to home brew apps, free from copyright or trademark restrictions and SDK limitations. And although jailbroken iPhones don't need to play by Apple's rules, there is still room for developers to make money. Makayama software, for example, charges $19.99 for the Camera Pro enhancement for iPhone 1.0.
The same dev team hacked iPhone firmware 2.0 before it was even released earlier this month, and Installer is available for iPhone and iPhone 3G. While it isn't as polished as the official App Store, the new version is getting close. There are advantages to the App Store (official, big name apps likePandora Radio, Facebook and Apple's own iTunes Remote are only available on the App Store), but users may not need to choose between App Store and Installer. I cannot confirm the latest jailbreak keeps the App Store working, but brave souls can sift through the iPhone Dev Team's official siteand try the latest jailbreak software for themselves.
Have you Jailbroken?
Did you jailbreak your iPhone? Is it now a shiny, new iBrick or a wide open mobile platform? Let us know by leaving a comment.