Jack Schafer on Apple's iEcosystem

By  |  Friday, April 16, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Slate’s Jack Schafer, a writer I admire very much, has written about the iPad, the iPhone, the App Store, and Apple’s very un-PC-like control over the entire system. His title, “Apple Wants to Own You,” kind of says it all. But here’s more:

Actually, the iPad and its silicon predecessors, the iPod Touch and iPhone, aren’t insane. What’s insane is the perimeter mines, tank traps, revetments, and glacis he’s deployed around these shiny devices to slow software developers to a crawl so he can funnel them through his rapacious toll booth and collect a sweet vig before he’ll let their programs run on your new iDevice.


[The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It author Jonathan] Zittrain peppers his book with examples of “killer” applications that nobody could have imagined emerging from uncredentialed developers. A hobbyist in Tasmania wrote Trumpet Winsock, which allowed Windows PCs to access the Internet. A pair of students wrote the first graphical PC Internet browser in three months.

I’ve squawked frequently about both the overarching principles and specifics of the App Store myself. If the day comes when Apple lets apps get onto iPhones and iPods without insisting on being an intermediary, it’ll be a profoundly good thing. But I think anyone who rants about the current situation needs to address the following points:

Despite Apple’s restrictions and micromanaging, the iPhone has inspired far more creativity than any mobile platform before it. (Or if you wanna argue that third-party Android, say, exhibit more imagination than iPhone ones, be my guest–but make your case.)

Apple may take a thirty percent cut of the money people fork over for paid apps, but a substantial percentage of apps (including some of the best ones) are free. In those cases, Apple is subsidizing distribution, not serving as rapacious toll collector. (Yes, of course, it profits handsomely from the fact that all those free apps make the iPhone and iPad so compelling, but the embarrassment of free apps does interfere with any “Apple wants money every time you do something on its devices” theory.)

The App Store is rife with interesting products from uncredentialed developers who wrote programs to solve their own problems. Guys in basements. Teenagers. Other folks whose software found a wide audience quickly thanks in part to Apple making it easy for iPhone and iPad users to find it.

Shafer says that anyone who thinks that “Apple’s rules are more about blunting competitors and creating a prudish atmosphere guaranteed to offend nobody than they are about throttling viruses and improving the user experience” is “a captive of Steve Jobs’ reality-distortion field.” Maybe so. But with the possible exception of a BlackBerry–and setting aside AT&T issues for the moment–the iPhone is the only smartphone I’ve ever owned that I can actually count on to work. (I can’t say that about my Droid.) I don’t think people who find the iPhone’s stability to be a major plus are dupes.

Like I say, I’m no Apple apologist. (Every time I think of its refusal to approve the Google Voice app–without ever quite rejecting it–my blood pressure rises.) But Schafer’s piece, like some of the ones he applauds, doesn’t ever address the reality of the iEcosystem as evidenced by the apps and services that exist for it. It’s simply not that dystopian. And while I continue to believe that openness will eventually prevail over closed systems, the iPhone’s more open rivals have yet to prove they can provide a better experience than Apple’s semi-walled garden.


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9 Comments For This Post

  1. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    This is a classic article. App Store sucks, App Store sucks! Hey, why is it working so well?

    One thing he missed is that the App Store rules are not made for the benefit of Apple or developers, they’re made for the benefit of *users*. They are designed to make buying and installing apps as safe and easy as buying and installing movies, even though apps are much more complicated and dangerous, and come from more varied sources. That is why developers from the movie industry find App Store rules to be quite sensible, while developers from the PC industry chafe at not having their asses kissed by the platform vendor and its users, they chafe at not being able to ship something half-built and still take money out of the pockets of technically naive users. But users *love* App Store.

    So it isn’t that Apple wants to own *you*, it’s that they want to own *App Store*. They made it, and they have a vision of it as an alternative to how everybody else does it, and it has been really, really successful. Of course they want to maintain their control of it.

    One small developer who gets App Store described it as “pop apps.” He said he had worked on many projects before, none of which had more than thousands of users. Then he made a simple app and put it in App Store and in the first week had a million downloads. All of his previous apps were audited and installed by I-T onto PC systems, but his App Store app was audited by Apple and installed by users themselves onto their own phones. He was thrilled to have that many users touched by his work. If you want the kinds of numbers user-installers bring, you have to put up with the apps being audited before they are sold. You can’t push that work down the line onto I-T, there is no I-T there to do it. The users do not know what “malware” is, they cannot patch their phone’s system to make your app work, it is not the same as the PC industry at all. It’s like music or movies: you buy a CD/DVD, you put it into a CD/DVD Player, it had better work. If not, you give the consumer’s money back. You don’t say “use a different brand of CD/DVD Player” or “get a newer CD/DVD Player” or “open up your CD/DVD Player and rewire it like so.”

    Another thing the author missed is that App Store is *not* the only way to deploy apps to iPhone. This is a very, very common mistake amongst anti- App Store ranters. If you want to deploy an app to iPhone users, you can write the app in an open, standardized, vendor-neutral API (app programming interface), using any tools you like, including open source tools, on any platform you like, even Linux, and put the app on any Web server you like, for example: “appname.developername.com” and then all iPhone users have to do to install your app is visit that server. When they visit that server, the entire app is downloaded by iPhone and installed to local storage and it runs from there, not from the server. An icon that is indistinguishable from App Store icons is made on the home screen. The user cannot tell which apps are from App Store and which came directly from the developer, they are on equal footing. For some developers, App Store makes sense, and for others, the open method makes sense. Some developers have both.

    So if you are phisophically opposed to App Store, you can deploy in the open API. If your app is not approved or would not be approved, e.g. it is porn-based, you can deploy to the open API. A terrific bonus is apps written to the open API also run on other systems that support open API apps, like the upcoming Google Chrome OS.

    Why don’t we hear more about this open API alternative to App Store? Because the open method of app development does not have the Apple 1-click cash register on it, sending 70% of fees to the developer. That is the cost of open. It’s not commercial by nature like App Store. So you have to build payments into your app if you want to charge money. Another complaint is that the open API does not have quite as many feature as Apple’s App Store API. That is another cost of open. Open moves more slowly because the open API is developed collaboratively and in a multi-platform way. But to blame these things on Apple is the ultimate in spoiled brat behavior. Apple built the phone and put both the open API on there and a closed, commercial alternative. You pick which is right for you to develop for, and which is right for you to use. You don’t get to pick some features of one or the other and complain and whine that the world is not working your way. Whatever flaws you think the open way has, you or anyone can help improve it so it is exactly how you like it. Apple has contributed to the open API as much as anyone, and more than most.

    Me, I make apps the open way. I run on iPhones and iPads without any Apple approvals. I make and ship exactly what I want to make and ship, and that is exactly what my users see. I thank Apple for making such great and capable devices to run my software, I don’t whine that they aren’t doing even more for me by collecting money or putting my apps in commercials. That is because I am not a spoiled little brat. My background is the music industry, not the crap-above-all PC industry. My open software literally runs *best* on Apple devices because they have provided the *best* open API support. Users have to install software onto Windows and Linux to use my open API apps, but my apps run on every Apple device right out-of-the-box. The other platforms that shoot their mouths off about “open” should shut up about Apple and ship better products. Apple is not only leading in closed, commercial apps, they’re leading in open, non-commercial apps. That is why they are murdering everybody else in the consumer market.

  2. gianpo Says:

    Well said I couldn’t agree more.

  3. TishTash Says:

    Harry, great rejoinder to Shafer. Two quibbles: I’m just probably a bit dull, but it took me a while to realize the second box quote was from YOUR article. (First I thought it was still Shafer, then someone else uncredited.)

    Second, I think you meant “Shafer says that anyone who DOESN’T think” etc.

    Lastly, the mobile version of your site refuses to load comments; I have to go to your full site to do same. In any case, great writing!

  4. Jose Alvear Says:

    Very fascinating story and perspective. I think a lot of people complain about Apple’s “closed” ecosystem without thinking that’s what consumer want. Simplicity. Easy access to content. Good prices. Something that just works.

    Imagine the iTunes store as a widget, however. Imagine that Apple can take that experience and put it on any device, like Android phones, Google TVs or other set-top boxes. It would make iTunes more valuable perhaps.

  5. scott Says:

    Forgive my ignorance, but can apps built with the open API alternative be used with a non-jailbroken iPhone/iPod touch? If yes, where are some examples of these apps? I’m curious and would like to check them out.

  6. mark Says:

    @Hamranhansenhansen: Like scott, I’m uncertain as to what you are referring to by open API. Please provide more detail. Are you referring to webapps? Or are you referring to serving up in-house corporate apps?

  7. Bryan Says:

    The open API system is web apps.

    Also the first post is misleading. The majority of the problems many people have with the app-store is the nature in which the rules are enforces and how they frequently change without reason.

  8. Synthmeister Says:

    The problem now is that any competition has to provide to developers what the app store provides. I mean, besides coming up with something different and better.

    1. 100 million credit card accounts
    2. 85 million device users (100 million by the end of the year)
    3. Best-in-Class SDK with a very rapid upgrade cycle
    4. Free SDK download and only $100 to submit all apps and updates for a year? No one ever did that before. Just look at the ridiculous entry costs for PS or DS development. Can’t make money off that part of the equation any more.
    5. Gobs of ways to monetize your app and now iAd too.
    6. A single, common hardware interface (iPod connector) and only two screen sizes–(might have a third screen size this summer.)
    7. Less than a handful of other hardware variations.
    8. An app store that actually makes money. Hard for competitors to get excited and spend the resources necessary for a great app store, when it’s not making money year after year after year. The iTunes music store helped allow Apple to create the infrastructure necessary for a great app store. No one else had or has that advantage. Becoming the world’s largest music retailer over the last 9 years has been a huge strategic win for Apple.
    9. Distribution of free apps for, well, ugh, free. No one seems to think about the cost Apple pays to host and distribute the tens of thousands of free apps.
    10. 35 million users who are completely independent of the telcos and will have a bona fide VOIP option with OS 4.0, many of whom are in the prized 10 to 25 year old category.

    The telcos and cell makers frittered away a decade with their idiotic UIs, buttons, restrictions, crappy app stores and overpriced ringtones instead of trying to build a device that was actually exciting to developers and users. Yes it might be a gilded cage but then I guess so is my DVD player, my TV, receiver and microwave. They all come with their own limitations and they don’t even allow anyone else to make money off them.

  9. AdamC Says:

    Out of context, the latest walled garden Intel and now they forced Apple to use their crappy graphic chip for the latest Apple laptops….now I would love whiners to whine that why can’t they have the latest nividia chipset for their Apple laptops.