Monday, 24 August 2009

The battle for the iPhone

Why Apple, Google and the Government are fighting for control of your phone

If you owned a shop, would you expect the government to tell you what products you should sell in it? Recently, America's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asked Apple to explain its decision not to sell Google Voice in its iPhone App Store. Their interest was presumably piqued by online protests from those challenging Apple's policy of vetting 3rd party apps.

Protests have focused on Google Voice, despite the fact that few people know what the service does, and fewer still actually use it. The two most common allegations against Apple are that this decision is anti-competitive and that it infringes iPhone owners' rights. But is there any merit to these allegations?

The iPhone is not the only gadget with built-in constraints upon its functionality. Devices such as games consoles and DVD players are similarly limited, (try skipping one of those tedious copyright warnings at the start of a movie). Whilst we may be free to use the electronics that we purchase as we see fit, manufacturers are free to determine the scope of functionality for the gadgets that they sell us. And if you choose to make your own modifications (such as installing Linux on your Xbox, or jail-breaking your iPhone) you only have yourself to blame if the manufacturer informs you that your warranty is now void. There may also be legal limitations in your right to customise. For example, in America, you are not free to modify your equipment if this results in a circumvention of copyright protection technology, in which case you will have committed a criminal offense under the DMCA. (Apple is currently arguing that this is the case in relation to iPhone jail-breaking).

Which brings us to the second allegation - that Apple is being anti-competitive in not selling the Google Voice application in its store. In the tech world, the term "anti-competitive" inevitably brings to mind the US Department of Justice and the European Commission's cases against Microsoft. However, there is a key different here between the iPhone and Windows. The iPhone may be popular, but it is far from a monopoly. At best, it represent 20% of the smartphone market, and competition is very healthy, with new entrants, such as Android and Palm's new Web OS emerging all the time. Whilst many consumers have no option but to use Microsoft Windows on the desktop, there is a great deal more choice when it comes to the mobile sector.

In other words, if you don't like Apple's policy of rejecting some 3rd party applications, you're free to buy a competitor product instead. And since the iPhone was never marketed as a device suitable for using Google Voice, then iPhone owners can hardly complain if it is not fit for that purpose. They could always purchase a competitor product that does support Google Voice, like Google's own Android OS. Apple's customers are not locked-in to iPhone OS in the way in which Microsoft's customers are locked in to Windows.

Apple has, this week, responded to the FCC, offering an explanation for their policies. It remains to be seen whether their response will satisfy the FCC, and what remedial action the agency may take if it does not. Either way, what sense can we make of Apple's position here? By limiting their users' freedom, aren't they committing a PR own-goal, without any obvious benefit? After all, few people are likely to use Google Voice anyway, and even if they do, wouldn't Apple prefer that they did this on an iPhone, rather than on a competitor's device?

The answer goes to the heart of Apple's uniqueness and its recent success. Whilst companies like Microsoft and Google sell software, and companies like Sony and Dell sell hardware, Apple's position as a true hybrid is practically unique. The remarkable success of the iPod and iPhone is due in no small part to their trademark ease of use, and this is achieved by a tight integration between hardware and software. Apps such as Google Voice allow the user to swap out core features of the device to be handled by third party software, and Apple's concern is that the seamless user experience will suffer as a consequence.

It will be interesting to see how the next few weeks play out. Apple is hedging its bets, claiming that it hasn't rejected the Google Voice app, but rather, it simply hasn't accepted it yet. They would doubtless prefer to reject it, but are, at this stage, testing the water with the Feds, to see how far they want to take this. If the FCC acquiesces, then Apple will presumably never get around to approving Google's pesky app. Then it will be down to the consumer, rather than the government, to decide whether they favor the stunning simplicity of a functionally constrained iPhone, to the flexible utility of an clunky, unintuitive Android handset.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

New blue iDisk icon replaces pink... was predicted by this blog in April


Last year, I questioned Apple's aesthetic judgment, regarding their choice of pink as a color for the new iDisk icon, with the switch from .Mac to MobileMe. Well it seems like someone at Apple is listening (to good sense, if perhaps not to me personally).


With the release of 10.5.8 earlier this month, the iDisk icon has switched to a far more attractive shade of blue. Now if we can just get rid of the hideous pink-stars default desktop, we really will be getting somewhere.


It's a minor point, but I have to add that the new blue iDisk icon was predicted by this blog in a mockup we produced way back in April.

CultOfMac.com features my book

More blatant self-publicizing for my new book, Secondomics...


Leander Kahney over at CultOfMac.com has run an interview with me about Secondomics, and how it relates to Apple's business. For a brief moment, I felt like Chris Anderson there ;)


Check it out: Cult Of Mac Interview


(Coughs humbly) ...the book is available from Amazon.com, priced $16.00, and you can read more about it at www.secondomics.com

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Could the new iTablet actually be an iPod touch HD?



With the rumosphere buzzing once again about Apple's much rumored tablet, and some analysts chatting like excited school girls, it's time for MacPredictions to gear up the SVU (special visuals unit) and crank out another mockup.


The tablet is a bit of a riddle. Why would Apple release one? They sat out on the whole pen-based computing thing, with Jobs pouring scorn on Gate's pet project (the Tablet PC). On that occasion, Apple's instincts proved correct. So what has changed now?


Earlier this year, most speculation focused on the idea of a touch-screen device as Apple's answer to the growing netbook category. The problem with this picture is that netbooks are cheap to manufacture, whereas Tablet PCs are quite the opposite. Something didn't add up.


Add to this the strange idea that Apple may be prepping Snow Leopard as a touch-based OS (based upon rather far-fected speculation about supposed touch-friendly features such as Dock Exposé). This blog has never subscribed to the idea of a touched based version of Mac OS X. It would just be too confusing for developers (both within Apple, and 3rd parties). Apple has just one touch-based platform - the iPhone OS, and that's plenty enough.


Fast forward a few months, and reflect upon the awesome success of iPod touch combined with games on the app store, and things become a little clearer. All that Apple needs to do is introduced resolution-independence to the iPhone OS (which will surely have to come at some point anyway), and they can then launch a true PSP/DS killer in the form of an iPod touch HD - a big brother to the regular iPod touch.


It would be compatible with all existing iPhone games, plus a whole slew of new HD games. It could also play HD movies - and completely undermine Microsoft's upcoming Zune HD in the process.


Suddenly the idea of a tablet from Apple starts to make more sense.