Trouble in iPhone paradise

Only three months into the iPhone era, it's clear the starry-eyed part of the relationship with Apple and iPhone owners is coming to a close, and the real part of the marriage is settling in. What would Dr. Phil do?

I think it's officially safe to say that the honeymoon is over for the iPhone.

Just like the day you discover that your gorgeous new wife leaves used tea bags in the sink and that she never really liked baseball in the first place, iPhone owners are waking up to reality. Sometimes, there's a price to be paid for jumping into a love affair without taking a minute to think about it.

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September was the tipping point for many. It's been just over three months since Apple started selling iPhones, and although the company has sold over a million units, it also angered many owners with the steep iPhone price cut early in the month, and closed the quarter by turning iPhones with unauthorized software into either pretty paperweights or clean-swept devices.

We've spent plenty of time talking about the price cut, which very few people outside Apple could have foreseen coming so quickly. But no iPhone owner should have gone into a relationship with their precious device without the knowledge that unapproved applications and cellular networks were sore points.

Apple made it very clear from the start that AT&T was going to be the exclusive carrier for the iPhone, and two weeks before the iPhone went on sale, CEO Steve Jobs let everyone know that because of security and reliability concerns, native third-party applications weren't in the cards for iPhone 1.0.

"We have been trying to come up with a solution to expand the capabilities of the iPhone by letting developers write great apps for it, yet keep the iPhone reliable and secure," Jobs told developers at the Worldwide Developers Conference in June. That solution was Web-based applications, which is sort of like being told that you can't buy a DVD because HBO shows that movie every month or so, and it was met with tepid applause by Apple's developers.

So, the warning signs were there. Yet some people always think they can get the other person to change, or that they can get away with something verboten on the sly as long as nobody's getting hurt. Several efforts immediately sprang up to "jailbreak" the iPhone, opening it up to application developers and unlocking it from AT&T's network to run around the world.

Apple moved fairly quickly to scuttle those efforts. I don't have much sympathy for unlockers; the two companies probably have a signed agreement that nobody gets to use the iPhone anywhere else but on AT&T's network. Apple is under no obligation to sell you an unlocked iPhone simply because you don't like AT&T. That was part of the deal, and happens often, although momentum is building to make locked phones a relic of the past.

Third-party applications, however, are very different. This is the sort of behavior that doesn't really hurt anybody, right? It's just taking a good thing and making it way better, don't you think?

That's where the control issues surface. Apple thinks that the iPhone is a sacred device, and that attempts to mess with its carefully designed software will only lead to problems. I think the company could have a point here. The iPhone's OS X is essentially a new operating system; sure, it has a lot of Mac OS X at its core, but it's a very different implementation. Apple could be very rightly concerned about widespread application development that's not up to certain standards leading to stability or security problems.

But this is the problem with the iPhone (and now the iPod Touch): is it a computer or not? Those who want the freedom to put outside applications on their iPhones think it's a little computer that should be able to run the same kinds of applications that they can on their Macs, or at the very least applications created for other smart phones.

Apple isn't ready for that yet. It's not even willing to take an "out of sight, out of mind" approach, like TiVo did with those who added unauthorized software to their TiVos. Instead, it's taking a cue from Sony, which moved quickly to scuttle PSP hacks only to watch the behavior continue unabated.

I have to side with the developers on this one: a closed device is not going to revolutionize the smart phone market. There are too many open devices out there already and Apple simply doesn't have the manpower to create all the potentially useful applications that could drive iPhone sales. Also, these development efforts are going to happen anyway; if Apple decides it's going to remove third-party applications with each software update, people will quickly learn to simply stop applying the updates and deprive themselves of new features for the iPhone as well as the extremely important bug fixes and security updates that Apple needs to keep the iPhone stable.

Come on, folks, don't you remember why you got together in the first place? Apple, you need to keep a happy core of early adopters who will spread the Gospel According To Steve far and wide. And iPhone owners, surely you recall how you felt when you first held your iPhone in your hand. I still have yet to hear any iPhone-related complaints about the look-and-feel of the software and the hardware.

Healthy partnerships need to involve compromise. The iPhone early adopters have to let Apple keep their iPhones locked to AT&T. (For now, at least, there's no way that marriage is going the distance.). And Apple needs to give a little and let iPhone owners make mature decisions about what software they can run by taking a lighter hand to application development.

I know you two kids can work this out. Sure, Apple's known for having a bit of a control thing, and iPhone owners are perhaps a bit more needy than the average cell phone owner. But there's lots of good here.

And if not, I know a good divorce lawyer in Redwood City, Calif.

About the author

    Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.

     

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