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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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domain names

Internationalized Domain Names – Are They Really Worth the Hassle?

Internet domain names have always been written using the Latin alphabet – regardless of the content of the website. Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and all other websites written in languages that do not use the Latin alphabet are forced to use a latin domain name to refer visitors to their website.

To a number of people, this is a concern because they feel that the requirement for someone to type the domain name using a foreign language acts as a barrier of entry into potential internet users that have no knowledge of any language that uses the Latin alphabet. The argument goes that such users would be more likely to use the internet if they were able to type the URL of websites they desire to visit using their native alphabet instead.

Another issue with the Latin alphabet is that it is not always capable of properly spelling a word of another language, and even when it is capable of doing so, several possible spellings may be correct, so the users will have a hard time guessing the “correct” spelling of the URL. For example, Aljazeera is usually spelt this way, but typing it down as Al-Jazirah or Eljazira would be an acceptable spelling by many Arabic speakers.

ICANN, the body responsible for regulating domain names worldwide, has been working for about a decade now on “Internationalized Domain Names” (IDNs), which will enable countries to have country-specific domain names that are written in any of the native languages of the country. The decision to use IDNs was finally approved last year and it is now possible for countries to apply to have such domain names. Applications are now in progress for Russia, China, Egypt, Saudi, UAE, Qatar, Tunisia, Sri Lanka, and a few other countries as well.

I am not fully convinced about the actual need for having domain names in non-latin characters. I do not understand how someone is expected to use the internet without having to know how to at least just read Latin characters. You don’t need to know English to use the internet, but you need to know how to type the letters to send an email to another person because all email addresses currently are written using Latin characters. Of course the availability of IDNs would mean that you can have full email addresses which are written in non-latin characters, but imagine having an email address that can only be written in a language other than English – so even if you have a friend living abroad who does not have a keyboard that supports his native language, then he wouldn’t be able be able to send an email to you. Accessing websites from abroad would also be problematic, but at least with websites, you can have alternative URLs which are not as difficult to manage as alternative email addresses.

The choices for prefixes for such domain names seem worrying as well, while currently, most generic domain name prefixes such as .com and .net are very short, and country code domain names are even shorter such as .uk, .jp, and .om, most of the Arabic IDNs have the whole country name in Arabic as the prefix. So Saudi will use the Arabic word for Saudi as part of any Arabic domain name it issues, and the word Saudi in Arabic is made up of eight characters. So just imagine how long the domain names would be.

It does not seem that Oman has made a request to ICANN to have its own IDN. I do not think that the use of the Latin alphabet in domain names is a major concern in Oman because English is taught as the second language in the country. I think it is a good thing to give people choices, but I think the complexities associated with introducing an IDN in Oman should be carefully studied before going ahead with it.

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