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Summary:

Whether you think Apple’s efforts to control the iPhone OS environment are helping or hurting, the question is when its ability to control things will break down. I think it already has.

By now, everyone has an opinion on the walled gardens Apple has erected around the iPhone, the iPad and the apps that run on them. The company is simply curating its platform, or it’s micromanaging developers to death. It’s nourishing the most successful computing platform of all time, or it’s suffocating innovation. It’s advancing the computer, or pushing it backwards. So divisive is the debate that it sometimes feels like the culture wars have come to Silicon Valley.

Whether you think Apple’s efforts to control the iPhone OS environment are helping or hurting, its ability to do so will eventually break down. Control never lasts forever — especially on the web, where entropy seems to be a guiding principle. The question is when Apple’s control will start to break down. I think it already has.

But while my reasoning is partly tied to the broader debate about open vs. closed systems, it has much more to do with a development that’s taken place over the past few months, one that even most technophobic Apple customer can grasp immediately: Apple isn’t just refereeing technical violations like private APIs; it’s refereeing morality.

It started when Apple pulled 5,000 apps from the App Store because of sexual content — though an arbiter of porn, even one with the best of intentions, will always end up with all sides angry with them. Apple’s shifting stance on political satire ignited another brush fire. It banned, then allowed Mark Fiore’s iPhone app; now, any aggrieved yahoo with a rejected app can fashion himself as a First Amendment martyr.

I’m willing to accept that Apple is trying doing the right thing for its customers. In one sense, Apple is like Walmart, or any retailer that excludes magazines and books with content it deems too sexual or politically controversial. But Apple is more than just a retailer — it’s the provider of a platform, and a wildly successful one. Apple can control its platform on a small scale, but as success expands that platform domain, the company’s control inevitably breaks down as it starts to create more problems than it solves.

The problems affect developers, content partners and consumers. To avoid having to explain its capricious approval system, Apple has retreated into an opaque cloud of inscrutability, making telepathy a vital skill for successful developers. As publishers large and small bring their content to the iPad, Apple’s murky morality may give them pause — or worse, lead to self-censorship. And curating controversial content in a way that leaves all parties unhappy is hardly a savvy way to market a hot new product to consumers.

Apple has often demonstrated an ability to be flexible. In January, it eased some controls on the app approval process in an effort to speed it up. It recently allowed Opera Mini into the App Store, an exception to its rule that third-party apps not compete with its native offerings. And iPhone OS 4 will finally concede to longstanding calls for the iPhone to multitask third-party apps.

So the company is likely to reassess its control-freak tendencies as well. It has three choices: One, hold to the status quo; two, curate its platform, but add a set of clear guidelines as to what’s allowed and what isn’t, or maybe a curtained-off section for controversial apps; or three, adopt an open environment where apps are rejected only on technical considerations. The first will only add to confusion. The second might work if the guidelines are explicit enough. The third is the simplest, but involves giving up a lot of control.

My guess is Apple will go for option No. 3. Not right away, but in increments. In the early days of the web, ISPs faced a similar choice and decided not to control what customers could read. Apple will always favor a closed architecture that lets it offer a web experience on its terms. But in time, even its curated experience will look more more like the messy reality we see on the web today.

Related GigaOM Pro Content:

Image courtesy of Flickr user herwings.

  1. Thanks for using my photo! I’m glad I could help, and I appreciate the link back! :)

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  2. Let’s hope Apple sticks with option 1, that will give more power to others and improve competition, which ultimately will benefit the consumer. The ones who will want open environments will turn to Android or other platforms, which in turn will motivate developers to do the same and create a more level playing field. Apple has done the same mistake for the last 30 years, why should they change.

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  3. Quote:

    My guess is Apple will go for option No. 3. Not right away, but in increments. In the early days of the web, ISPs faced a similar choice and decided not to control what customers could read.

    My guess Apple will stick with its option 1. Apple always been and will always be in control. I don’t think they will change now. As for option 3, it will never happen. They won’t lose control, as our ISPs in my country still decide what customers could read, so they are still in control.

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  4. This so much nonsense. Apple is “refereeing morality”. Please….

    The company is doing what companies are supposed to do, what management gets paid to do – advance their own interest. It’s what we who own shares in them want them to do.

    Its a business. Not a church or an organized religion (popular opinion to the contrary).

    Can we have a bit more insight from GigaOm?

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    1. You are wrong per se – btw porn is the best industry on the web and shouldn’t Apple be going there if money is the priority.

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      1. Not if porn damages your brand, just as paypal.com doesn’t process payments for adult or anything controversal, ebay stays away from porn and a lot of items…

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  5. Never liked Apple, never bought any of their overhyped, overpriced trinkets

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    1. No, but you will buy inferior copies of it.

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      1. go f**k urself

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      2. Yeah, inferior copies like HTC Incredible,Nexus One or Dell Lightening. I can’t stand appholes.

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      3. @Rag & saseed Thursday, May 6, 2010

        Apple haters always try so hard and still lose in the end, I agree with rabidcd, Don’t knock it until you try it baby’s, and keep up with your blue screen of death and half baked copies of apple merchandise, By the way enjoy spending that $340.00 for your upgrades.

        Oh also what version of android do you have, Yea the one that does not and cannot be updated due to 75 different knock offs.

        How much more ignorant can you get Chumps.

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      4. @@Rag and Saseed Wednesday, July 28, 2010

        Interesting… your ignorance of Android is ironic considering your post.

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  6. Wait. You really think Apple will choose door #3 and only reject apps based on technical considerations? Thus, in effect, becoming the world wide web and exposing my children, like it or not, to content that I don’t want? And, yes, there are millions and millions like me with millions and millions of children.

    You have this backwards. If Apple does NOT oversee what’s in and what’s out, then their platform becomes an expensive version of Android. I am not seeing the logic in this one.

    Why, exactly, do you think people pay the premium for Apple?

    Oh, and by the way. If you’re a commenter who’s just gonna retort with the tired BUT IT’S THE PARENT’S RESPONSIBILITY yada yada yada, save our time. Heard it. It’s always been a specious argument. And yes, my dollars are at least the equal of yours.

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    1. Louis Wheeler Sunday, May 2, 2010

      What they fail to see, Brian, is that a store MUST control its product selection and quality, because those lend themselves to creating an ambiance or a store image. It is called marketing. Product selection, style and quality are what makes Walmart different from Neiman Marcus. Both are fine stores but they appeal to different market segments. Only a fool thinks that either store is casual about what it chooses to sell. This is why they both practice option #2.

      Socialists of various types disapprove of Walmart and Neiman Marcus, because they are capitalist corporations which serve their customers and their store’s image, not Political Correctness.

      You would expect that those technical socialists in Linux to disapprove of the App store. Apple is not likely to cave into Leftist demands any more than Walmart and Neiman Marcus will. Why? Because that would be the end of them as a store. Their customers would no longer trust Apple to keep out the junk. The App store would stop being an enjoyable experience.

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    2. I totally agree. An industry being the biggest on the web certainly doesn’t mean that everybody has to accept it. Basically there’s a reason for Porn being problematic. Everywhere. So regardless of what that reason is, I think Apple is doing the right choice when they avoid what is naturally avoided (for the same reason I mentioned above) by most people, especially families.
      To everyone that objects, the question is simple: Would YOU like YOUR children / future children to have access to some material? No? Good. Then why would you YOURSELF access materials that you think are bad for your children?

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  7. myonlinelifenow Saturday, May 1, 2010

    Pretty half sided article. Where are the millions of people that are rallying against Apple. Facebook pages stating “Make The App Store Free and Open” Yeah nothing out there. For the many App developers that don’t like Apple’s stance on how they run the App store, they have two choices. Live with it or jump on another platform. No one is holding a gun to their heads on this one. As a consumer with an iPhone and waiting for an iPad here in Canada, I couldn’t be happier with what Apple has done. I have the ability to download tons of apps and surf the web. To me thats open enough. All of the negative talk has really only come from websites like yours. (sorry Gigaom I love your writers none the less) Why are you such an Apple hater? I mean you don’t own Apple. I don’t own Apple. And unless you’re a shareholder, the millions of people that buy iPhones,iPodTouches and iPads don’t give a rats ass how Apple runs their business. As long as I can buy the product and it works the way Apple says it will (iPhone can be used to make phone calls, surf the web, email and use thousands of apps) What is the big deal. The same things goes for consumers as it does with the App developers. No gun to the head..buy the product that you enjoy. No one is forcing you to buy our stuff. People like Apple. Live with it. I do.

    OCC

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  8. Louis Wheeler Saturday, May 1, 2010

    I keep wondering if people expect perfection out of Apple. The difficulty is that each of the participants have a different definition of perfection and they represent various social causes and constituencies.

    Take the Open vs Closed argument, for instance. The people pushing the Open argument are, most likely, in the FOSS community who are parasitical on Apple’s hardware. No one in the FOSS community could have, or would have, created the iPhone. They want the kind of developer anarchy which has failed in Linux to attract a general following. They act as spoilers and muckrakers; they are utterly self interested.

    This matter of constituencies is important. We know well the people who are pushing the developer constituencies, but there are other players. Apple clearly trying to protect the platform as a whole. But, who is representing the customers? That again is Apple when it deletes questionable applications. The developers often maintain that they should be in charge and be able to sell any crap they wish. Apple has an interest in creating a “quality” store to match its quality hardware.

    Apple is imperfect in applying its rules, but that should change with time. Apple needs to create many App stores, including one for prurient and offensive material. It should also have a children’s section and the two should not mix. Only by doing this can Apple protect the rights of all its customers. If this offends developers, then they can go write code for Android, since Apple has so many developers that it is being swamped.

    Hence, I believe that Apple is likely to proceed to solution #2. It should be open within the boundaries of good taste, effectiveness and in accordance with the Apple guidelines which protect the platform.

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    1. I disagree. It’s not about FOSS at all. It’s really about the fact that Apple not only controls its App Store (good, and perfectly reasonable) but refuses to allow users to install apps on the iPod/iPhone/iPad by any other means.

      Consider Palm: there’s an official App Catalog, which Palm controls pretty much as tightly as Apple controls theirs. However, developers also have the option to offer apps without official review, and are given a link that users click on to install the app. These apps are machine-reviewed to make sure they only use official APIs, but otherwise developers are free to offer whatever content they want, and users are free to install them.

      Palm’s approach isn’t new, of course. It’s how things work for pretty much every other platform except the iPod/iPhone/iPad, and it works just fine.

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      1. Louis Wheeler Sunday, May 2, 2010

        Mark, name me one place in the world where the suppliers of goods defame and decry a vendor for controlling access to their store? It is the FOSS community who jailbreak the iPhone and Linux developers, mostly, who demand OPEN access as a political statement. This is all about the Cathedral vs the bazaar ideology. This is Linux socialism at work.

        Regarding Palm, how well does that work for them? My understanding is that they were hot once, but are not now. What caused their decline?

        Why should Apple copy their methods? One part of capitalism is that many business methods may be used and the customers decide. Open vs Closed is a developer issue, not a consumer one. This is not something which has Macintosh roots. It is ideology imposed from without.

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  9. Apple as a component of governance 2.0 in Western societies?
    Are we capable as a society of operating without a filter?

    Some of us can filter better than others.

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    1. Louis Wheeler Sunday, May 2, 2010

      The filters, which we have, are self chosen. If you are a Democrat, you are likely to read the Washington Post, not the Washington Times. Why? Because the Washington Post preselects its news so that it will conform to your leftist sensibilities.

      We shop at certain stores because the ambiance and selection fits out tastes and expectations. We don’t shop at stores who will not filter for us. Who wants to wade through all the junk?

      If you want to do without these filters, fine. Be indiscriminate if you wish; read both the Washington Post and Times. But, you shouldn’t impose your values on others who want these filters.

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      1. “We shop at certain stores because the ambiance and selection fits out tastes and expectations. We don’t shop at stores who will not filter for us. Who wants to wade through all the junk?”

        Exactly. So where are the other app stores for the iPhone/Pad/Pod/Ped/Pud/Pid that filter products the way that suits me best?

        The Walmart argument does not hold up when talking about Apple because I can easily find another retailer that sells what I want. Not so with Apple.

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      2. LOL WaPo is the neo-conservative newspaper of choice, nyt is the more liberal mag.

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  10. If you look at the latest crop of products that came out of Cupertino, I will have to conclude that Apple is doing everything right by putting out innovative products that run as advertised, which is what people will pay good money for. It is going to make sure that they will continue to run well and therefore it will do everything in its power to control what goes into them. The problem that Apple made when it kicked out Jobs was that it tried to produce computers that looked like the PC models and failed to create enough of a difference to motivate people to pay a little bit more for them. Things changed radically since Jobs’ return and started producing must have products that are nicely protected inside its walled garden so they will continue to work well with each upgrade, and with the right mix of service and support (Apple stores) that is lacking with the other competitors. It works for the vast majority of people who wants to use a computer without having to deal with a lot of hassle. A lot of people will rather deal with something that is as trouble free as possible, and Apple has just the right product mix to satisfy that category of consumers. Granted that they do cost a little more, but there were no shortage of people who will buy Apple products, even during the past two years of recession when so many people lost their jobs.
    Geeks who prefer a more open system which they can troubleshoot endlessly, will go with Android and Linux and that is just fine.
    As to the problem with Adobe, let us say that the company has fallen behind the curve when it comes down to supporting OS X properly. Flash is truly not up to the standard and causes most of the crashes in Safari. I do not even use Acrobat reader because it runs way slower than Preview, Apple’s version of PDF reader. The latest Aperture version from Apple screams on the multi-core Intel Macs and Pixelmator has become a great replacement for Photoshop Adobe which has failed to take full advantage of Os X. A lot of us, former Adobe users have seen this coming and have switched to better and much less expensive alternative programs. Many more will follow if Adobe continues to treat the Mac platform as it did the past ten years.
    Yes, the computer field is changing fast and guess who is at the forefront of these changes. Apple. Adobe and Microsoft are still stuck in nursing their expensive and tired bloated cows. There will come a time when the better and cheaper alternatives running on Os X will come knocking at their door. Adobe should address the need of its Mac users because sooner or later, they will transition to greener and better things. Another threat to Adobe is looming around which is brought about by the next revolution in the computer field. I am talking about the slow and painful death of the printing business. This will come about as the web becomes ubiquitous, thanks to all the nice gadgets coming to market right at this moment with the launch of the iPads for example.
    Your article should more be entitled: is Adobe loosing its way.
    Apple is doing just right and busy secretly working on the next disruptive phase of this industry. I do not know where is Microsoft at this stage, but I don’t care.

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