Hey Apple: Don’t be evil!

The iPhone is everywhere in the news these days. Like everyone, I enjoyed watching the announcements and think Steve Jobs did his usual brilliant job of pitching it. There are some curious omissions, though:

  • No VOIP even though they have WiFi. I suspect this is a concession to the cellular carriers.
  • No IM support – no AIM, no Jabber, no Yahoo! Messenger, etc. Using SMS to do chat sucks compared to any of the above. It should be a fallback to SMS when IM isn’t available. I’m mystified by this one, honestly – lots of other smartphones support IM, so it can’t have been the carriers who decided this one, right?
  • No tactile feedback on the touchscreen and no voice recognition. Guess Apple thinks no one will ever want to place a call while driving. (Yes, I’m aware this is illegal in some places, and unwise pretty much everywhere. But that doesn’t mean people don’t do so frequently.)

But enough about the iPhone’s limitations. I still want one!

But there’s a deeper, more disturbing undercurrent I noticed in yesterday’s announcements that I wanted to talk about. Here’s my “evidence,” such as it is, but keep in mind that this is based on early and incomplete information.

The first item is the lack of openness in the iPhone platform. Lots of people have written about this. Apple says it supports widgets, but it isn’t clear whether there is any support for third party widgets. Similarly, Apple says that there will be no ability to write applications for the iPhone without making some sort of deal with Apple first. To me, this means that it will be basically impossible for small developers to write for the platform, and difficult even for big players. Could Adobe do a free Acrobat Reader for the iPhone? Could Microsoft provide viewers for Office documents (assuming they’d want to, of course). Could Yahoo! build a widget that lets you view your flickr feed? Thats a lot of questions, with no answers. As a software engineer, though, I have to ask: if the iPhone is a closed system, how does the customer gain from it being based on Mac OS X?

The second item is Apple TV. Apparently it:

  • only supports Apple’s own H.323 codec for video. I can understand only supporting Apple’s own DRM for protected content, but what about content from the web? Shouldn’t I be able to stream that stuff without doing hours of downloading and conversion first?
  • doesn’t support third party extensibility, not even Apple’s existing iPod games initiative
  • doesn’t allow additional disk storage to be added to the box even though they have a USB connector on the back

The third and final item is the new Airport Extreme with support for 802.11n. According to Apple:

Most new Mac computers ship with built-in 802.11n wireless support that can be easily enabled with the installation of enabler software included with new AirPort Extreme wireless base station (see sidebar).

Get that? Apple’s been shipping computers for a while that supported 802.11n, but they crippled the feature until their own wireless router was ready for the market. But that wasn’t bad enough: now that they do have competitive products, they still won’t enable 802.11n on the Mac you already paid for unless you first buy one of their routers. I have no doubt the software will leak to the net, but that is besides the point: if I’m a legitimate Apple customer who has valid reasons to install someone else’s 802.11n routers in my home or business, Apple is going to make that customer do something illegal in order to take full advantage of their Mac hardware.

[UPDATE 01-15-2007] According to this article at iLounge, the reason why Apple isn’t providing 802.11 support on existing Macs is Sarbanes-Oxley. I don’t know that I believe this reasoning, but if true its pretty mind-blowingly weak. Rumor also has it that Apple will soon be selling the update for $4.95 to get around this issue. Here’s the key quotes from iLounge:

I’m not going to claim to understand this next part, which really just makes no sense to me at all, but the claim Apple’s making is that it _can’t_ give you the 802.11n-unlocking software for free. The reason: the Core 2 Duo Macs weren’t advertised as 802.11n-ready, and a little law called the Sarbanes-Oxley Act supposedly prohibits Apple from giving away an unadvertised new feature for one of its products. Hence, said the Apple rep, the company’s not distributing new _features_ in Software Update any more, just _bug fixes._ Because of Sarbanes-Oxley. If this is an accurate statement of Apple’s position, which as an attorney (but not one with any Sarbanes background) I find at least plausible, this is really crazy.

Any one of these things on its own would raise questions in my mind. Taken together, though, they imply that Apple may now be putting their own plans for world media domination ahead of the needs of their customers. It also implies that Apple believes they no longer need a software ecosystem to make their products succeed. As a long time Apple fan and former Apple employee, these are both things I’m loath to see. Hopefully they’ll change their tune.

Updated 1-11-2007 to fix a typo and change the title to have a plain old single-quote instead of a curvy one…

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~ by Andrew Shebanow on 10Jan07.

One Response to “Hey Apple: Don’t be evil!”

  1. I told one of my friends (mac-afficionado) about the fact that his macbook has 802.11n ability, but crippled, and he told me after the keynote his MacOSX automatically updated and enabled his nic for .11n So if he’s right, users won’t have to pay for a router to have their macbook’s nic enabled to .11n

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