Friday, October 07, 2011

A Walled Garden, Yes, But....

A persistent criticism of Apple is that, with the iPhone and iPad, they have created a "walled garden", limiting what users can do on the devices and restricting which vendors can sell applications that will run on them. For example,
I have no plans to be captured by the Apple ecosystem. It is the height of control-freakery, with Apple telling app developers and even journalists whether what they sell through its storefront is acceptable. Apple wants customers to live in its gorgeous walled garden. No thanks, I prefer to make my own decisions.
It's a fair criticism to a point. Inherent to its business model, Apple does restrict what you can do with your iPhone and iPad. From the technological side, the restrictions keep malicious programs, viruses, worms and the like off of the devices, as well as avoiding technology that causes frequent crashes or drastically shortens battery life (sorry, Flash). Apple was savvy enough to recognize that users would blame it, not software companies, for crashes or for short battery life. Second, yes, by controlling the storefront Apple gets a cut from every product it sells. Apple has made some mistakes in excluding apps from its App Store, and imposes restrictions that keep certain apps out of its store, but pretty much all of that content can be accessed through the browser build right into the device.

The complaint reminds me of the early days of computers, with the introduction of the Mac and mouse. If you remember that era you may recall hearing from PC aficionados that a GUI was too limiting - that you were removed from the real power of the line command, a faster and more efficient means of controlling your machine. That's true to a degree, but even when they were forced to use line commands, most users learned little more than they needed to learn in order to run basic software packages. With improvements to GUIs, most computer users never even fire up a command prompt. Yes, probably 5 - 10% of computer users like and benefit from at least occasional use of a command prompt, most computer users were happy to see it go. The iPad and iPhone can be accused of continuing in that direction: making that same 5 - 10% of the potential user base grumble about it being difficult to program or customize iPads, the pros and cons of "jailbreaking" a device, etc., but producing an easy-to-use stable product that the other 90% of users enjoy.

But if you look at things from another perspective, the iPhone and iPad have, at least, made the cage a lot larger. Consider what was available on the market before the iPhone. If I wanted to develop a software product for the Blackberry or Palm, what was the mechanism through which I would have been able to push it out to the masses? What about a cell phone app - what if I wanted to produce software to run on Sprint's phones? What if I wanted (or want) to sell a VOIP app that will run on any cell phone and let people switch from their cellular minutes to making calls over an Internet connection at a coffee shop? Apple has produced beautiful devices that make us recognize that a cellular phone or tablet-type device is in fact a computer and is capable of doing more than its maker allows (unless you jailbreak the device) but while you're still in a cage, the cage is enormous as compared to what other handset manufacturers previously allowed (and in many cases what they presently allow).

I don't know if the author is a power user. I don't know if he's off writing apps for his Android phone, or if he considers it to be an exercise in freedom to watch Flash videos through a cell phone browser. I suspect that, as with most of the people who used to talk up the freedom and power of the PC's historic command line, it's an "I like to know that I could modify the OS and write my own Apps if I wanted to, and learned how, even though there's no realistic chance of either actually occurring." Let's say, however, that he wants to write and market an app for Android devices. Does he have a realistic option other than selling it through Google's app store or Amazon's app store? If he produces a product that competes with an add-on service from a cell phone carrier, can he be sure that his cellular service won't block or disable the app? That is, where in this market can I find the garden that is not walled - let alone one that has not been forced to expand in response to the iPhone?

As tablet computers become more powerful and capable, we may move into a future in which your cell phone can truly be your personal computer - use it on the go with it's built-in screen or use a wireless connection to have it power a monitor and keyboard for full computer functionality. If that's what the market wants, that's where Apple, Amazon, and the larger world of Android devices will go.

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