Today’s New York Times reports on the impact of Apple’s decision to allow third-party application software on the iPhone:
In the first 10 days after Apple opened its App Store for the iPhone, consumers downloaded more than 25 million applications, ranging from games like Super Monkey Ball to tools like New York City subway maps. It was nothing short of revolutionary, not only because the number was so high but also because iPhone users could do it at all.
Consumers have long been frustrated with how much control carriers — AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and the like — have exerted over what they could download to their mobile phones. But in the last nine months, carriers, software developers and cellphone makers have embraced a new attitude of openness toward consumers.
The App Store makes a big difference to me as a new iPhone user – the device would be much less useful without third-party applications. The value of third-party applications and the platforms that enable them is a commonplace outside the mobile phone world. It’s good to see it finally seeping into what Walt Mossberg famously calls “the Soviet Ministries”.
But before we declare victory in the fight for open mobile devices, let’s remember how far the iPhone still has to go. Although a broad range of applications is available in the App Store, the Store is still under Apple’s control and no app can appear there without Apple’s blessing. Apple has been fairly permissive so far, but that could change, and in any case there will inevitably be conflicts between what users and developers want and what Apple wants.
One of Apple’s reasons for opening the App Store must have been the popularity of unauthorized (by Apple) iPhone apps, and the phenomenon of iPhone jailbreaking to enable those apps. Apple’s previous attempt to limit iPhone apps just didn’t work. Faced with the possibility that jailbreaking would become the norm, Apple had little choice but to offer an authorized distribution path for third-party apps.
It’s interesting to note that this consumer push for openness came on the iPhone, which was already the most open of the market-leading mobile phones because it had an up-to-date Web browser. You might have expected less open phones to be jailbroken first, as their users had the most to gain from new applications.
Why was the iPhone the focus of openness efforts? For several reasons, I think. First, iPhone users were already more attuned to the advantages of good application software on mobile phones – that’s one of the reasons they bought iPhones in the first place. Second, Apple’s reputation for focusing on improving customer experience led people to expect more and better applications as the product matured. Third, the iPhone came with an all-you-can-eat Internet access plan, so users didn’t have to worry that new apps would run up their bandwidth bill. And finally, the fact that the iPhone was nearer to being open, having a more sophisticated operating system and browser, made it easier to jallbreak.
This last is an important point, and it argues against claims by people like Jonathan Zittrain that almost-open “appliances” will take the place of today’s open computers. Generally, the closer a system is to being open, the more practical autonomy end users will have to control it, and the more easily unauthorized third-party apps can be built for it. An almost-open system must necessarily be built by starting with an open technical infrastructure and then trying to lock it down; but given the limits of real-world lockdown technologies, this means that customers will be able to jailbreak the system.
In short, nature abhors a functionality vacuum. Design your system to remove functionality, and users will find a way to restore that functionality. Like Apple, appliance vendors are better off leading this parade than trying to stop it.