The MacOS App Store: starting down the slippery slope

As recently reported by Crunchgear, Apple likes the entire App Store concept so much it’s now rolling it out in the next version of MacOS X. It’s hardly an unsurprising move, however, that doesn’t make it any less dangerous from a software freedom standpoint.

While it appears for now that Apple will continue to allow software to be installed on MacOS X as before, I suspect it will only be a matter of time before this quietly disappears and MacOS becomes just like iOS (the iPhone/iPod/iPad operating system), where everything must be approved by Apple, and truly free software (as in freedom) is impossible. This is one more step down the slippery slope which started with the App Store in the iPhone.

Until and unless Apple proves by words and actions it is committed to the freedom of its users to use its products in ways not arbitrarily limited by Apple itself, I still maintain that Apple is the biggest threat to the future of computing freedom. The specific actions I am referring to would include the following, at minimum:

  1. Apple offers alternatives to the App Store on its “non-computer” products (iPod, iPhone, iPad) where such alternatives do not currently exist, without the requirement of “jailbreaking” those devices.
  2. Evidence of “jailbreaking” is no longer considered by Apple for the purpose of warranty validity while it is still necessary to run non-Apple-approved applications.
  3. The license for future versions of the iOS SDK is made friendlier to the free software development model. (I will clarify this in a later post when I get a full copy of the license agreement.) Ideally, Apple would release enough documentation to let anyone write an iOS replacement and load it onto any device which ships with iOS, and make the license changes retroactive.

Were Apple to do these things, I believe the world would be a better place for freedom. The fact that Apple will probably refuse to do any of this, speaks volumes about the true motives of Apple as a company and the character of such people as Steve Jobs. With this latest attack on software freedom by Apple, there has never been a worse time to buy Apple products.

Apple flexing its “control freak” muscles

John Gruber’s recent post to Daring Fireball theorizes exactly why Apple has decided to crack down on sex apps in the App Store. While the explanation is plausible, it does not excuse Apple’s censorship and draconian control over the iPhone’s users and developers.

In summary, John explains the move as Apple protecting its brand image, inasmuch as the App Store is part of that brand image. While that’s understandable, Apple’s move still comes down to playing nanny and acting as final arbiter of what iPhone users can legally put on their iPhone. It’s an awful lot of control to exert on customers after they have already purchased a rather expensive device.

If there were legal alternatives to the App Store this would be less of an issue. (I’m assuming many, if not most, iPhone users are unwilling to enter the risky world of jailbreaking since this voids the warranty and Apple still asserts jailbreaking is illegal under the DMCA, and will always be officially unsupported.) If Apple is worried about its brand image, how about letting other companies run their own App Stores for the iPhone? That way, Apple keeps its brand clean, the porn freaks get their fix, and everyone’s happy.

Most of my beef with the iPhone would disappear if the following were the situation instead:

  1. An individual iPhone user has every choice available when deciding what apps are on that device, even those that Apple has not given its “iPhone nanny stamp of approval” to;
  2. Developers are able to approach alternative venues to sell applications where Apple denies approval in its store; and
  3. There is no longer a need to “jailbreak” an iPhone to accomplish either of these.

For Apple to let other companies run their own App Stores, or even individual software authors being allowed to offer apps direct to the public, would mean Apple gives up some degree of control. I think control is what this is really about and brand image is only a contributing factor. The lesson is clear: iPhones never really belong to you. You never really buy an iPhone; as far as being able to control what applications are allowed on it, it’s still Apple’s. “Purchase” is kind of meaningless when all kinds of digital locks are in place to prohibit the purchaser from exercising freedom of choice. I stand behind my analogy that it’s really more like a rental.