Exiting the rat race: a story of an iPhone developer’s departure

Dan Grigsby, best known for his Mobile Orchard blog for iPhone developers, has decided to hang it up per his recent blog entry which was also reported in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. Dan draws an excellent parallel between two historic situations involving “ask permission” environments and the current situation involving Apple’s iPhone and its increasingly more restrictive development environment:

In the mid nineties, ahead of even Amazon.com, I founded one of the earliest e-commerce companies. At that time, most banks forbid Internet credit card transactions. They were fearful, so they enacted policies that blocked innovation. Of course that wasn’t universal: a few banks bucked the trend and, together with entrepreneurs like me, created a new sector of the economy. Pedants will point out that we still needed a bank’s permission; more reasonable readers will observe that there was no single daddy entity whose approval we required.

Early last decade, at roughly the same time and in parallel, I created a company like PayPal. Person-to-person payments threatened the banking establishment to such an extent that we were routinely told PayPal-like transactions were criminally illegal. A decade later, Wired Magazine placed PayPal as the cornerstone of the future of money.

The innovation in both of these examples made the establishment uncomfortable — they’d have stopped us at the gates had they been able too. Apple can, at their least bit of discomfort.

The lessons here should be relatively obvious: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Apple can exercise what is in effect an absolute veto over any particular iPhone application. Of course, there is no shortage of applications that will make Apple uncomfortable as a corporation; there are tons of blog entries about iPhone app rejections of questionable merit.

It makes me uncomfortable that those that dare call Apple out are usually dismissed. It takes high-profile iPhone developers and bloggers to finally put their virtual feet down and say “enough is enough, I’m quitting this rat race because even if you win you’re still a rat.”

Apple’s tightening of the chokehold, telling developers exactly what programming languages they can use (Objective-C, C, C++, or Javascript), and even then placing developers completely at their mercy, denying the App Store placement of what would otherwise be useful applications, is a recipe for inevitable bad PR and a peasants’ revolt. This is something I would have expected a company to have done back in the 1980s; it is woefully out of place in 2010. The irony of this, is that the Apple Computer that brought us the Apple II computers and the original Apple Macintosh was much more freedom- and hacker-friendly than today’s company.

The most discomforting thing, is that Apple is much closer to the rule than the exception. My best arguments against buying Apple’s iPhone also apply to any number of other products, most notably the Blackberry series and Microsoft’s Kin. (While Google is not exactly squeaky clean, they aren’t being nearly as restrictive in development of applications for Android-based phones such as the Droid and the Nexus One.) The most promising freedom-friendly smartphone, the Neo Freerunner, is being made in very small numbers and is disproportionately priced given its featureset.

Maybe Dan Grigsby can get Apple’s attention in ways others can’t. No one developer or blogger will be able to effect the type of change truly needed; it’s going to take a mob of angry developers to abandon Apple before they take notice.

Rotten Apple dealings, part number gee-I-lost-count

I’m combining my commentary from these three recent stoies into one post, because they are all about Apple’s latest shenanigans and I don’t want to post three in a row.

The first two are about yet more arbitrary iPhone app rejections. ZDNet’s The Apple Core blog reports on Apple taking out certain wi-fi discovery applications, on the grounds they use an undocumented interface (i.e. something Apple decided was too good to let just any old programmer use). Another one is more troubling; TechCrunch reports on the phone radiation monitoring application Tawkon and its denial.

Both of these examples have something in common: they highlight the arbitrary nature by which iPhone applcation developers can be put out of business. As it stands now, the iPhone developers are at the mercy of Apple.

With regard to wi-fi discovery, the responsible thing to do would be to open up the API (interface), properly document it, and ensure that every programmer who wishes to use it may. I’m not sure of the gory details, but this certainly smacks of something Apple would just do on a whim. At least one of the applications in question is releasing a version for jailbroken iPhones, though again I will note that jailbreaking shouldn’t even be necessary to begin with.

Tawkon actually performs a very useful function, something that really should be built into most mobile phone handsets. It’s sad, but unfortunately no big surprise, that Apple’s own interest (covering up exactly how much radio frequency emissions come from its product) trumps those of the people who wish to make money by selling such an application. Does Apple really have something to hide here? I would not be surprised if the final, Apple-approved version of Tawkon is crippled beyond usefulness.

The last article is about the iPad and Associated Press, courtesy of TechJackal. Apparently the good old AP is planning to offer a paid service to read its news articles on the iPad. Yes, the same ones available for free via the web.

The closed model of the iPad breeds greedy schemes like this of dubious merit. It’s a great deal for the AP and Apple, and a lousy deal for the people out there who have placed their trust in Apple by buying their wares. I know, it’s nothing really new. It’s sad that we have so many Apple lemmings out there willing to jump on the company’s latest offering, none of whom even care about the implications behind Apple’s unfortunate use of Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) where it is clearly not needed and works to the detriment of its customers.

Shame on you, Apple. Your customers and developers deserve better than this.

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.

Too hot for the iPhone: Apple censors sex apps

The Unofficial Apple Weblog writes on what appears to be the imminent removal of some or maybe even all sexual content from the iPhone’s App Store. Now, on any other smartphone, this wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But this is the iPhone we’re talking about, and the App Store is the only Apple-approved channel for iPhone applications. So in essence, this is Apple playing “nanny” and censoring content they don’t like.

The particular app in question may well set a relative low in taste. I’m not going to judge that. What I am going to judge, is Apple’s utterly senseless and arbitrary censorship of iPhone content, specifically applications.

I was asked by my mom recently what I thought of the iPad (which will have similar restrictions to the iPhone and iPod). I’m not including the full text of my response here, but regular readers should have some idea how it went. (You may want to do some catch-up reading if you are new to this blog.)

When it comes down to it, I’d really rather not have anything bad to say about companies like Apple or their products. But dubious and arbitrary decisions like this do not sit well with me as a sworn opponent of censorship. And as long as Apple and other companies continue to make dumb moves like this, I’ll likely keep calling them out as I find them. I’d let TUAW do it instead, but it appears its author(s) will more than happily cave and essentially pat Apple on the back for a clearly censorious move.

A tasteless energy drink marketing move

I’m sure Pepsi (who owns the AMP energy drink brand) really wants this one back. And yes, I know I’m late to the party on this a bit; I have a good reason for that, which I’ll explain in a future post.

Mashable reports on AMP’s new iPhone app “Before You Score” that was apparently released with one of two assumptions: AMP is only bought and consumed by men, or the women that learn of this marketing gaffe would be willing to look the other way and buy Pepsi’s products despite it.

I don’t know what Pepsi could have been thinking. I have never been that big of a fan of most Pepsi products; this does not help.

Not only is this a marketing blunder, it’s likely the women will be able to memorize the lame pick-up lines this thing spits out, so the men who rely on this get a really bum deal in the process. Shame on you, Pepsi; why not resurrect the Pepsi Challenge and see if you can get Coke to change their formula again? It can’t go any worse than this disaster.