iPhone – the Device I love to hate

jzemlin's picture

When Apple launched the 3G iPhone, I must confess, I went out and purchased one. I need a smart phone for work, I need one that works both in the United States and Japan, and the consumer electronic design from Apple floored me. The screen is exquisite. The video playback is outstanding. The mobile web experience is second to none. I realize I am in a walled garden, but what a pretty walled garden it is.

Now, you needn’t remind me that I purchased my iPhone as a personal accoutrement. But as a business person, I use it for more than just personal calls and entertainment. In fact, I’ve come to rely on its excellent web access and very usable email capabilities As a business person, however, I guess I defy the expectations of product marketing managers at Apple: I have over 2,000 contacts in my phonebook; I participate in conference calls; and I visit people in offices all over the country and the globe. Even with the recent upgrade, to version 2.0 software and the availability of third-party applications, my passions remain cooled.

All iPhone users have their own peeves. As a consumer, mine include

- Mediocre radio set / wireless reception
- Underpowered and hard-to-hear ringer/vibrator
- No stereo headphone BlueTooth profile
- No ability to run an instant messaging client in the background
- Lack of ability to sync wirelessly

and as a business person, let me add

- tabbed access to phone book entries (try scrolling through 200 names beginning with “S”)
- limited ability to sync with contacts, calendars and mail not native to Mac OS X
- no cut and paste between applications
- no ability to put clickable map locations, URLs or phone numbers into the Calendar

Most of these capabilities were present on my last phone, and even on the one before that.

Now, Apple’s “opening up” with the iPhone SDK has at least introduced some excellent third-party add-ons (e.g., Funambol sync), and the 2.0 software release addressed a few of my peeves above, but most remain unresolved.

The concept of “opening” brings me to the real point of this blog entry: what does it mean for a phone to be open? There are actually five parameters of openness for a mobile device. Let’s briefly review them and how the Apple iPhone does and doesn’t observe them:

1. Open to Choose Networks and Operators

Also termed “unlocked”, right and ability to choose your carrier or operator is essential to the definition of an Open Phone. Imagine buying a PC or a server that limited you or your company to using a single ISP? While it was revolutionary that Apple could negotiate so strongly with AT&T, to the point of reinventing the operator-OEM relationship, the resulting overly tight relationship between that carrier and Apple does a disservice to iPhone end-users, as do comparable relationships crafted in other geographies.

While smart handsets in North America are almost universally locked to a single operator, those sold abroad are not. Moreover, many handsets sold locked in North America are actually available abroad in unlocked, open versions (e.g. Linux-based phones from Motorola, Samsung and others).

Frustration with Apple’s choice against openness has led to the single largest mobile phone gray market in history. 1.5 to 2 million iPhones have been cracked to run on unauthorized networks abroad. Apparently, I am not the only one having a love-hate affair with my iPhone.

2. Open to Add Applications

Workstations, consumer desktops, and enterprise servers based on Windows, UNIX, Linux and even MacOS let users and IT departments choose and deploy applications as a matter of course. When the iPhone was launched last year, Apple not only didn’t support third party applications, Cupertino took great pains to prohibit installation of ANY third party apps (as they did initially with the Macintosh, too). With the introduction of version 2.0 of the iPhone OS, Apple took real steps to remedy this deficit, but only through a carefully controlled channel and completely tame ecosystem. The iPhone will NEVER be enterprise ready until IT departments can choose their own loads, pick their own integrators and deploy their own solutions to meet their business needs.

In particular, IT managers and individual end users alike would like to be able to deploy VoIP clients like Skype, alternate productivity/connectivity applications (email, calendar, etc.), music management and ring-tone software. They’d also prefer the option of web-based IM and chat instead of SMS. It is instructive to note that worldwide, mobile operators will derive over US$50 billion in SMS revenues by 2010.

The Apple App Store, while also a large step forward, acts as a bottleneck to iPhone software distribution. Apple’s ongoing efforts to block independent installation of third-party software, and also reports of Apple being able to disable even App Store software belie any claims to openness touted by Cupertino.

3. Open to Develop Applications

The most decried limitation of the iPhone precedes and goes hand-in-hand with adding applications to a device – you first have to create them. After the half-step of enabling web applications with Webkit-based Safari, Apple finally offered up an SDK in Q1 of 2008. By all accounts, it is a very well conceived and packaged tool kit and even integrates key open source components like versions of GNU compilers and of course the BSD OS kernel. With the launch of the App Store, the market began to see the outcome of Apple nudging open the door, albeit by a crack. However, no matter how enthusiastic developers may be for the device, the software platform ties developer hands, limiting them to a single SDK, a single development language (Objective C), and most daunting of all, a single distribution channel.

4. Employing Open Standards in Design

Mobile telephony lives and dies by standards compliance. Handsets must conform to a range of technical standards requirements, but the majority of industry norms deals with radio performance and network interface (e.g., GSM, CDMA, SMS/SS7, TCP/IP, BlueTooth, etc.) and not with software, mobile handsets, even those promoted as “smart” and “open”, mobile device software development is a proprietary mostly standards-free affair. important exceptions include Java JREs (forked and otherwise), HTML/HTTP, and POSIX APIs.

The iPhone does not hesitate to follow in this tradition. The launch of the iPhone SDK amply illustrated Apple’s disdain for software standardization, eschewing Java, ANSI C/C++ and other standards-based languages for Objective C, an idiosyncratic dialect that combines C and C++ and comes out of defunct Next, another Jobs company.

Objective C may not seem to be such an egregious departure from mainstream programming languages (it’s not Algol, LISP or Lua), but the choice of language effectively locks developers into the iPhone platform, locks out ISVs with applications written in other programming languages, and gives Apple an inordinate amount of control over how iPhone applications get built and deployed. Even as Apple sells millions more iPhones and developers build and deploy iPhone applications, the resulting de facto standard platform will remain a closed entity subject to the whim of Jobs and co.

5. Building on Open Source Software with an Open Community

Apple does indeed build the iPhone with open source software: the OS is based on BSD, the Safari browser on the Webkit project, and many other elements of the base platform and user interface integrate open source software components. Just look at the Legal selection under Settings and you’ll find a cross section of open source licenses referenced for the various OSS components on the iPhone. But building on OSS does not automatically imbue a device with openness. There is no community around BSD-derived Darwin that sits at the base of the iPhone and of MacOS X as well. While there is a real community process governing Webkit, Apple exercises what many developers consider to be undue influence over the browser platform; Webkit-derived Safari, which is completely closed, with no community whatsoever.

Steve Jobs is the first to state that the iPhones lack of openness is a goal:

“We define everything that is on the phone,” he said. “You don’t want your phone to be like a PC. The last thing you want is to have loaded three apps on your phone and then you go to make a call and it doesn’t work anymore. These are more like iPods than they are like computers. These are devices that need to work, and you can’t do that if you load any software on them,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there’s not going to be software to buy that you can load on them coming from us. It doesn’t mean we have to write it all, but it means it has to be more of a controlled environment.”

Jonathan Zittrain summed it up best, “Apple threatened (and then delivered on the threat) to transform the iPhone into an iBrick. The machine was not to be generative beyond the innovations that Apple (and its exclusive carrier, AT&T) wanted. Wheras the world would innovate for the Apple II, only Apple [and those approved by Apple] would innovate for the iPhone.”

Chuck my iPhone – Not yet!

Glancing back over my functional complaints and how the iPhone fails to pass open muster, I still have no plans to ditch my deficient device. It is still an elegant piece of hardware and software engineering and meets my needs better than 90% of other mobile market offerings. Certainly, of my peeves listed above, the software-centric issues would greatly benefit from the scrutiny of and input from a real open source developer community. I understand Apple’s desire to remain the ultimate arbiter of look and feel, but that desire for aesthetic control cuts Cupertino and its products off from the incremental enhancements that accompany openness. Only when developers can both use and also improve a product to meet their own needs and tastes does it come alive and have hopes for longevity.

Today, the mobile ecosystem has a growing number of open choices, including LiMo, Android, and soon-to-be-open SymbianOS. You can be sure I will be one of the first in line for the new Android and next generation LiMo devices when they come out.