The Side-loading Argument for iPhone OS

2010-06-03 20:00:00 -0400

The argument about the iPhone OS being too “closed”, or that Apple is controlling what you do with it too tightly, is still being pretty hotly debated, and I’m loathe to wade into it because most of what could be said has been said, usually with a lot of invective that’s unhelpful. For the most part, while I find it annoying, I try to keep in mind that nobody is forcing anyone to buy iPhones. Take it or leave it.

Yesterday, John Gruber brought up this interesting proposition by Jason Snell in which the latter proposes that allowing the “side-loading” of native apps would end the debate, and end the claims of critics that iPhone OS is too “closed.” I don’t agree with him that this will be the direct consequence, but I think it is worth considering. Happily, Gruber has pulled the money quotes for us:

I don’t think the company needs to stop controlling what apps get in the App Store. All Apple needs to do is add a new feature, buried several menu items down in the Settings app, that mirrors the one found on Android devices: an option that lets you install Apps from “unknown sources.” If a user tried to turn this option on, they’d get a scary warning about how these sources couldn’t be trusted, and that they may lead to instability, crashes, loss of data, you name it. Scary stuff.

Most users will never find that setting. Many who do will be loath to turn it on. But by putting it there, Apple immediately shuts up every single claim that the iPhone isn’t open.

Obviously, I like this idea, but I don’t think it “immediately shuts up every single claim that the iPhone isn’t open.” Gruber responds:

Personally, I’d welcome such a move, but I don’t think it would have the effect Snell envisions. Snell’s argument is that Apple should do this to nip the argument that the iPhone is too closed. But if Apple did exactly what Snell argues, critics would still harp on the closed App Store. iPhone critics have seldom let facts get in their way.

Maybe John’s right about critics of the App Store, at least some of them. But I think there’s another angle of influence to consider here, a better reason to do this, that will help achieve the goal of calming critics who might scare away potential customers, telling them that the device is “too closed.” Consider Gruber’s further argument later on in his post:

If there are people who think the iPad can’t read PDFs or play music and videos that aren’t purchased from the iTunes Store, then surely there would be people who’d think you can only install apps from the App Store even if sideloading were a supported option, as per Snell’s suggestion.

This is more likely than not the result of the tech-head discussion spilling over to blogs that normal people read and daily conversation in a kind of painful telephone game. It’s almost like watching political campaign spin and slogans propagating.

I’d like to offer a bit of dissent here. Perhaps I’m not the kind of critic John is writing about, since I’m already an iPhone developer, but this would certainly make me very happy and alleviate most of my concerns (in particular the very high risk of investing months of “opportunity cost” on an application that could be rather capriciously rejected from the App Store). Also, and more importantly I think, I’m one of those people who gets asked by friends, “should I buy an iPhone? I heard those things are really closed, that you can’t do what you want with them.” My answer to those folks would suddenly be radically different*.

Then there’s all my sysadmin friends buying Droids instead of iPhones. I think they’d have a radically different view of all this, too. Being able to load what they want is specifically the concern they have. In my circle of tech heads, we don’t care that the App Store is closed, we care that we are prevented from loading what we want onto the device. We’d still happily sell software on the App Store (I think few would choose to go it alone) and buy software on the App Store. And we’d be more inclined to develop software for the device itself. In fact, you’d probably have an explosion of freeware, further entrenching iPhone OS.

I think a lot of tech folks – who are not normal folks, but who end up being a product’s pro-bono (or de facto?) evangelists to the normal folks – do see the prohibition against side-loading native apps as being really heinous. They’re like howling monkeys on the issue! And they are very much the people coloring the discussion, starting this telephone game of “the iphone is locked down,” resulting in normal people thinking that they can’t read PDFs or load their own music. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think these are dots appropriately connected.

I think all this other stuff about the App Store itself being too closed is just window dressing for that issue. I don’t think Apple needs to do this to convince people to buy the iPhone or the iPad – so far it would seem they clearly don’t – so I don’t expect to see it happen.

An aside: I don’t think it can reasonably be said that the prevention of side-loading native apps is solely to protect the user experience, as it’s also been exercised by Apple in ways that have nothing to do with protecting the user experience (rejecting Google Voice, punting that 4Chan image scraper or whatever it was, etc). Furthermore, it obviously gives them a monopoly on revenue for the whole market place. The App Store is very convenient, but it’s very much the only game in town by force.

Allowing the side-loading of native apps really would change the discussion quite a bit, and does cut the rug out from under the whole “what iPhone doesn’t, Droid does (unless Verizon doesn’t want you to)” ridiculousness.

* Usually my answer is, “yeah, they’re great, I love it. No, you can’t load whatever you want onto it, but it’s still really awesome, despite regularly dropping all my calls.” And that right there is probably why Apple won’t change the policy. Still, “Yes, buy it, yes, you can do whatever you want with it, it’s really awesome, despite regularly dropping all my calls,” is a much better endorsement.

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