An unconfirmed report surfaced last week that Apple is supposedly putting together a program under which approved iPhone software will be sold through iTunes.
Some people have reacted quite negatively to this, and have accused Apple of limiting the release of native applications to its own software store so it could get more money from iPhone users.
After reading some of the discussion on this, here's the picture I have in my head:
Exterior shot, the mountaintop lair of the nefarious Steve Jobs, during a thunderstorm.Cut to the interior, where we see Jobs working in laboratory filled with crackling and sparking equipment. He's wearing a while lab coat and holding an iPhone. He speaks: "So, they want native applications for their iPhones do they? We'll give them what they want, but we'll make them pay and pay and pay! Bwaha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!!!" Fade to black.
It's a mistake
There's a basic rule of life that I think applies in this case: never accuse a person of doing something for unethical reasons when it can instead be blamed on human error.
The reason Apple has tried to lock out native third-party applications on the iPhone isn't to siphon away more hard-earned cash from its customers; the company is doing this because it simply doesn't understand smartphone users.
Apple has tried to treat the iPhone as a different kind of iPod. No one expects the iPod to do anything besides the pre-programed functions, so Apple doesn't have to concern itself with hackers.
But the iPhone isn't a super iPod. It's a smartphone, and people expect to be able to extend its functionality. Apple has tried to fight this from the day the device was announced. Unsuccessfully, I might add.
Third party apps, round one
Don't forget, at the time of its announcement the iPhone wasn't going to be able to run any kind of third-party apps. It took months before Apple caved in to pressure and announced support for Web 2.0 software.
If Apple's whole goal of limiting third-party applications was to make money selling them, the iPhone Software Store would have been up and running the day the iPhone debuted, and it would have found a way to charge for the Web 2.0 apps.
It's about the support costs
Apple's primary reason for greatly limiting third-party software is simple: reducing technical support costs.
Poorly written applications are a significant cause of unstable and crash-prone handhelds and smartphones. By tightly controlling or even eliminating third-party software Apple insures that the iPhone is as stable a device as possible.
This is an important goal for Apple, as it is handling all the technical support for this device itself. Tech support is surprisingly expensive, Apple wants to spend as little time and money as possible trying to figure out why some app that a kid in his parent's basement put together before Math homework has hosed hundreds of iPhones.
But what Apple seems to be finally starting to realize that you simply can't close the door on installing applications onto a smartphone. Customers won't stand for it. So Apple has been struggling to find a compromise, giving customers good third-party apps while also limiting the cost of supporting them.
An "Apple certified" logo
Apple has tried the route of blocking all unauthorized software, and hopefully has realized that this causes more problems than it solves. The company is getting tons of bad press and is angering many of its most valuable customers.
The idea of selling approved applications through iTunes is a good one. It gives users access to quality third-party software, while also mostly ensuring that any program that's installed won't turn the iPhone into a brick.
Before anyone says "Apple has no right to tell me what I can do with my iPhone," consider that if you brick your device, you're going to expect Apple to replace it, quickly and for free. That clearly gives Apple some say in what you do with it.
Yes, this is a solution that makes no one very happy, but that's the nature of compromise.
The best thing Apple can do at this point is get a system for selling apps up and running quickly, along with a large collection of quality apps that perform a wide variety of tasks. Going forward, the company needs to devote enough resources to this project that new software titles aren't held up in testing for months and months.
If it does that, this whole brouhaha will soon be forgotten. The iPhone is a good device, and it will be better with native third-party applications.