I’ve been an Apple user since I got my Apple II back when I was in Junior High. (We called it Junior High back then, and not Middle School, which will give you some idea of how long ago that was.) And I’ve been an avid, vocal user and supporter of Apple products for the majority of my life. My laptop is an Apple, my desktop is an Apple, my tablet is an Apple, and my phone…well…
Something sinister crept into my little Apple Garden of Eden a year or so after the release of the first iPhone. Everything seemed to be going along marvelously in our little anarchistic, knowledge seeking, apple eating sub-culture; but like most revolutions, victory turned the liberators into the oppressors.
If I had to date the beginning of this turn more exactly, I’d mark the moment that Steve Jobs conceived of the App Store and subsequently releases iOS 2 in 2008. Most people don’t remember that, as originally conceived, the iPhone was not designed to run on apps. Taking a cue from the boys at Google, with whom Jobs was still friends at the time, Jobs envisioned the iOS much like a Chrome platform, where third party developers would deliver applications via the browser engine, and not as native device applications.
But two things happened that forever altered the course of Apple’s history. First, third party developers quickly figured out how to “jailbreak” the device in order to install their own native applications, and second, Jobs was facing the reality that he was loosing his battle with cancer, which he had been aggressively treating in secret (for the most part) since 2003.
The jailbreak movement sent a very clear message that consumers were not ready to accept a browser driven, chrome style universe—and Jobs responded to this message as was appropriate. He gave consumers what they demanded. But he demanded a pound of flesh in return. The advent of the App Store and Apple’s admittedly beautiful xCode IDE for iOS, distributed free as part of the Apple Developer Tools, made it possible for anyone in the world to develop native iPhone applications. But development is only half of the supply and demand equation. Distribution is the other. And on this front, something sinister was afoot.
As a developer, you’re now free to develop any iOS based application you want. But you aren’t free to put it on anyone’s iPhone or iPad, including your own, or those of your friends or family, without Apple’s permission. Prior to the days of the iOS, even in the Apple environment, as a developer I could write an application, run it on my computer, give it away to friends and coworkers, sell it, etc. And I and others did this frequently. If we needed an little app to perform some task we would build it; and in the open source world, if it was useful to someone else in our community, we would share it. We didn’t have to get permission from mom and dad (or Big Brother, as the case may be) to share our application.
But in the App Store world, applications must be approved by an Apple editorial review board before they can be distributed. And if you or anyone else installs an application on your iOS device that has not been through this approval process, you are in violation of you license agreement, warranty voided, and your service provider has the right to turn off your service. Fifty years ago, no consumer, judge, or legislator would have accepted such a controlled, one-side arrangement. Imagine if Ford had a license agreement that stated that you could only put Chevron gas in your Mustang and you couldn’t modify the interior of the car in any way or you would loose the right to legally drive the car.
Apple’s tight grip on the distribution of software to its iOS devices limits both creativity and freedom of speech. As mobile devices have increasingly become a necessity as opposed to a luxury and an ever growing and important arena of both public and private discourse, we should be deeply concerned about the fact that an elite, corporate body is determining who can say what to whom and how.
Apple itself justifies its tight control of the marketplace by claiming that it is necessary to insure the proper functioning of its devices. Most industry analysts point to the simple economics of the situation—the App Store created an entirely new and extremely profitable revenue stream for the company from which no god fearing capitalist would willingly walk away. With the App Store model, Apple actually gets a part of the profit for every piece of software sold. Imagine if the car companies got ten cents on the dollar of every gas purchase in America?
There is validity to both of these arguments, but there is also a third piece of the puzzle about which people seldom talk—Steve Jobs’ cancer. Whereas prior to the advent of the iPhone and Jobs’ cancer diagnosis Apple had always played the long business game, working the cutting edge of development and innovation for its own sake rather than pandering to immediate market needs (this is, in fact, what differentiated Apple from Microsoft in the 1970′s and 80′s) suddenly, for no apparent reason, immediate market demand became the prime motivating factor in Jobs’ decision making process.
DOS was ugly and clunky, but it ran Excel; and, as a result, Microsoft outpaced Apple for roughly twenty years in nearly all technology sectors. In all that time, Jobs never sacrificed Apple’s extreme attention to design in favor of brute-force usability—a move which would have undoubtedly increased the company’s profitability and competitiveness. For most of his adult life Jobs showed a stoic ability to do what he thought was right, regardless of what others were telling him. But when people started jailbreaking the iPhone, he redesigned the entire platform. Why? The answer is simple. Fear.
The history of the conceptualization and development of the iPhone exactly parallels the onset and progression of Jobs’ cancer. Jobs was simultaneously experiencing the realization that he had no control of either his physical or corporate body. And his response was completely predictable, try to get back some control. Fear never leads to openness. To the contrary, when we are afraid, we close down both energetically and behaviorally. And so Jobs made an end-run around the jailbreak movement. One that offered just enough freedom to prevent a total revolt, but rooted control back in the hands of his progeny while at the same time not only marginalizing but criminalizing those who would resist the hegemony.
This is unfortunate. It makes me sad. I was proud to be a lifelong Apple user and supporter. And I still love the iPhone UI. But I love the fact that anyone, from anywhere, can code and put anything they want on an any Android device more. Android is open!