The Growing Geek iPhone Backlash

[Timothy B. Lee]

Nick Gillespie points points to the latest ridiculous case of Apple censoring apps on its iPhone/iPad platform. Apple rejected a cartoon version of the classic novel Ulysses because it included some bare breasts. Nick writes:

I am genuinely surprised by how many tech-geek friends say they are finally getting fed up with various procedural and content-based hassles being imposed by Apple regarding the iPhone and iPad. They threaten regularly to move from Apple to Droid phones (none has so far said they're quitting the Mac platform), which may be mostly bluster, but is still interesting (and it's not like Google doesn't present its own issues regarding terrible, terrible freedom).

It's not just bluster. Last year, almost every computer scientist in my group at Princeton had an iPhone. This year, two of my colleagues have bought Android phones, and I'm leaning toward getting one myself when my iPhone contract runs out next month. Nick focuses on a content-related dispute, but what really sticks in the craw of geeks are the technical limitations Apple imposes on app developers.

Most major software platforms are open in the sense that anyone is free to develop applications for them without first getting permission from the platform owner. This includes Apple's own Mac OS X. Anyone can download the Mac developer tools, build a Mac application, and distribute it directly to users.

The iPhone, in contrast, is a closed platform. Apps may only be distributed to users via the iTunes Store, and Apple carefully examines each app before allowing it onto the store. This might not be so bad if Apple limited itself to checking for obvious problems such as crashes and security holes. But Apple's filtering has been much more aggressive, protectionist, and erratic than that.

For example, Apple has prohibited the use of cross-platform development toolkits. This means that app developers may not build an app that works on both the iPhone and other phones. This includes Adobe's popular Flash technology, which Apple has banished from the device. This means that developers must do twice as much work if they want to build applications for both the iPhone and other mobile platforms.

Apple has a seemingly never-ending and constantly-changing list of reasons to reject applications. Earlier this month, for example, Apple rejected a photo-frame app on the grounds that (as Steve Jobs put it) "we are not allowing apps that create their own desktops." Many of these rules aren't written down anywhere and they can change without notice.

As you can imagine, this sort of behavior doesn't endear Apple to prospective iPhone developers. Because the rules aren't written down anywhere outside of Cupertino, every iPhone developer is in danger of devoting thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of work on an app before running afoul of some previously-unknown clause in Apple's rulebook. Even worse, Apple's stranglehold over the iPhone app market means that an app developer is forever at Apple's mercy. Apple can decide to boot your app from the app store at any time without explanation or opportunity for appeal. You'd be a fool to bet your company's future on that kind of arrangement.

So far, Apple's early lead in multi-touch technology has allowed it to dominate the market for mobile "apps." But if the company continues treating its developers badly, that can't last. The developers will flee to another platform, and a year later users will start to notice that the best apps are available for some other platform.