The Walled Garden of Apple

The iPhone has been one of the most revolutionary devices in recent history, it has changed the way we use mobile phones, the way we browse the internet on the go, and the way mobile applications run. Apple managed to achieve this by imposing very strict controls over the operating system of the iPhone and the way users and developers interact with it.

Though technically comparable to that of a portable computer, the iPhone’s operating system is unique in the sense that Apple has absolute control over which applications may be installed on it, even those made by independent developers. There are methods to override the restrictions imposed by Apple and install any application you please, but that would void the warranty of the device, so the majority of users only download applications approved by Apple and made available for download through iTunes. Apple reviews each and every single application submitted to its App Store to ensure that the application is of satisfactory quality, that it does not improperly use system resources, and that it does not contain objectionable content.

For the most part, this has been good for users. It is not common to hear about an iPhone application that crashes or ones that impose a security risk. Yet many developers are starting to complain about the review procedure and the arbitrary decisions made by Apple relating to it. The definition of objectionable content turned out to be very loose so that applications with political commentary or risque content are banned on this ground. In addition to this Apple has rejected applications that compete with iPhone built-in features, such as Google Voice, which wanted to provide iPhone users enhanced calling capabilities.

Very recently a new iPhone software development kit was released by Apple which included new terms and conditions that prohibit using any language to develop iPhone applications other than the ones selected by Apple – even if these other languages were later translated into the same format as regular iPhone applications. Before the introduction of this new prohibition, developers were able to use their existing knowledge to develop iPhone applications without having to learn a new language and they could also develop applications for several other platforms using the same tools instead of having to use a different tool for each different platform. Apple does not only have control over what content developers have in their applications but also what tools and languages are used to develop these applications regardless of what the content is.

There is no doubt that Apple’s strict control over its devices has helped maintain excellent performance to its end users, but like the majority of people now, I am outraged by the new approach taken by Apple. It is simply excessive, even Microsoft’s old monopolistic practices seem innocent compared to this.

Yet I know that still most developers will not be deterred by the archaic rules the App Store because the opportunity to make profit selling iPhone applications exceeds that of any other existing platform, but I don’t think this will remain for long as competing platforms, such as Android, which are more open and transparent are starting to gain market share and could surely establish themselves as a viable alternative to the iPhone. We will just have to wait and see if Apple will be able to continue to rule the smart mobile space with such a regime.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.

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