By Harry McCracken | Monday, July 26, 2010 at 4:07 pm
Of all the controversies over Apple’s iPhone App Store acceptance policies, the one that’s bothered me most doesn’t involve smut, flatulence, tethering, bizarrely expensive knickknacks, or even the work of Pulitzer Prize winners. No, what’s really bugged me has been the periodic evidence that Apple has a problem with iPhone software that aims to compete with its own apps. The examples started soon after the App Store opened (Apple told the developer of a podcasting app it nixed that it wasn’t allowed to duplicate iTunes functionality) and most famously include the company’s refusal to approve the Google Voice app on the grounds that it “interferes with the iPhone’s distinctive user experience.”
(Depending on whether you side with Apple or Adobe, you may or may not lump the iPhone Flash controversy in with this class of rejection. If you’re following iOS development issues carefully, you may also be ticked off over Apple’s refusal to let apps developed with non-Apple tools into the store.)
For iPhone owners who believe in the power of competition, the notion that Apple gets to decide if its apps face competition on its own platform is profoundly unsettling. It’s a bit as if Microsoft had responded to the arrival of Netscape Navigator in the mid-1990s by booting Netscape out of Windows, period. And I continue to believe it’s not only bad for Apple customers but bad, long-term, for Apple itself. (If the iPhone ended up as a land of calcifying Apple apps and no good alternatives, it would be one more reason to buy an Android phone.)
The company’s position on competitive applications has been mysterious, evolving, and–as far as I know–one it’s never explained in public. The only way to know for sure what its stance is on a particular program with some similarity to an Apple app is to hold your breath and see whether it gets accepted.
Lately, though, nearly all the news about iPhone apps that compete with Apple ones has been good. Services such as Rhapsody and MOG, for instance, have brought subscription music with offline listening to the iPhone, despite the fact that they make it possible to gorge on music on the phone without ever touching iTunes. And Opera Mini, the first alternative iPhone browser that doesn’t piggyback on Apple’s Webkit rendering engine, is in the App Store.
Apple even seems to have softened on phone apps. Back in March, it approved Line2, which provided VoIP via an interface very much like that of Apple’s Phone app. (It’s recently been updated to support multitasking, so it can ring to alert you of incoming calls even when you’re in another program.)
Even more notably, Apple approved last week’s new version of Skype, which is pretty much the version that every Skype fan who owns an iPhone has wanted all along. Now that Skype supports 3G and multitasking, the notion of using it as your primary phone on the iPhone–and using Apple’s Phone app with AT&T voice service rarely, if ever–isn’t completely nuts. I don’t think I’m going to do that, since I already have an AT&T number and a Google Voice one, and one more would be one phone number too many. But it’s nice to know the option exists.
There is one core iPhone app which I already use as rarely as possible: Safari. I’ve switched almost completely to Atomic Web Browser, which feels far more like a desktop browser. It’s got real tabs, the ability to search the text in the page, a full-screen mode, and other key features that Safari lacks. I’ve already forgotten what life was like before it, and recommend it heartily.
I doubt that Apple loses much sleep over Atomic. For one thing, it seems to be the work of one talented programmer, not a browser biggie such as Microsoft, Google, or Firefox. For another, all of its Web-page rendering is done by Safari. Bottom line: It poses no current or future existential threat to Apple’s own iPhone browser.
Which brings up a gloomy possible interpretation of the current situation: Maybe Apple is only willing to approve third-party rivals if it’s convinced they’re going to remain small potatoes. As interesting as apps such as Rhapsody and MOG are, the vast majority of the music-listening world seems to have decided that the iTunes model (buying tunes one at a time) beats the subscription one (paying a flat fee to rent music). Opera Mini, as clever as it is, is a specialty browser: It’s designed to be used primarily in areas with crummy Internet access. And Line2 is a small company that markets its service as a complement to Apple’s Phone app rather than a substitute for it.
The new Skype is a happy sign that Apple is willing to approve extremely competitive applications from very large companies. Given Apple’s erratic approval patterns in the past, though, it’s not enough to make clear the era of rejecting programs for encroaching on its turf is over.
So I’m still asking myself questions about Apple’s philosophies and intentions. Such as:
Any guesses about any of the above? I choose to remain cautiously optimistic until there’s evidence that Apple isn’t willing to let its customers make the call on whether competitive apps belong on their iPhones or not…