Et Tu, Cupertino?

By on June 30, 2007 4:38 pm

Here at SitePen, we’ve got some pretty deep experience with building apps for mobile devices and having seen the issues first-hand, I firmly believe that Apple is doing a great thing (in the medium term) for the world by making the Open Web the way to deliver apps to their phone. In the short term, they’ll be doing millions of people a huge favor by letting them replace their Treos with a device that doesn’t reboot when exposed to air, sunlight, or text messages.

There are interaction problems yet to be solved (how do you “thingify” a web app for the iPhone? offline? etc.), but fundamentally the iPhone puts the onus on the browser to mediate hardware access better. This is the right race to be running since it forces every one else to one-up Apple on openness and immediately cuts out the idiotic middle man situations that Brew and even J2ME create through oligopoly and ineptitude, respectively.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see that there should be photo, video, audio, and cell tower id (or gps coord) input types in HTML. Combine any of those with WhatWG’s local storage proposals (FF2 already implements) and something Gears-like and you’ve got not just the excellent browser that Apple is already shipping, but an application platform that enables much of the stuff a phone should be able to do…modulo the big caveat emptor: is the phone part of your phone any more open?

Sadly, with the iPhone, the answer seems to not only be “no”, it’s closer to a loud-and-clear “fuck you” to businesses and travelers. I imagine this is AT&T’s pound of flesh for the way Apple is changing the traditional OpCo/handset vendor relationship. Apple is pushing on the (rightfully) beleaguered and reviled AT&T network and “service” offerings by cutting out the lametastic application “vetting” process for the high-end market. Apple is also forcing all-you-can-eat data service into basic plans for a device, something the carriers have been trying to forestall for a long time, not least of all because their networks are in such poor shape. Most critics of the iPhone to date have missed how much of a shift this really is in the mobile market. What the critics are not spending enough time raking Apple/AT&T over the coals for, however, is the blatant backslide in basic device utility that’s being introduced with the iPhone. In particular, the lack of bluetooth data service pairing to laptops and SIM swapping make a very clear statement about the balance of power in the mobile network arrangement.

You (and I) the consumer(s) pay Apple and AT&T for separate considerations, namely a phone and network access for that phone. The AT&T/Apple deal puts us in the middle of a power struggle which an open market would have already fixed. In the US the OpCos sell 90% of all handheld devices through their storefronts and these devices are tethered to usurious “service” plans. Various rebates and discounts and outright arm-twisting occurs behind the scenes when you pick a phone and a service plan, but what almost never, ever happens is that you’re given the opportunity to buy the best (or most appropriate) of each and match them up as you see fit. Ever wonder why that phone you got for “free” from Oligopoily Inc. won’t let you remove their janky apps from 3 of the 9 most important spots in your phone’s UI? You can thank the FCC, greed, and an abdication of civil service principles (or even open-market competition as a policy cornerstone) for this painful state of affairs. In Europe, where the handset manufacturers have the OpCo’s largely cowed, things are a bit saner. You can buy phone and service separately and at something near market price. The OpCo’s and handset manufacturers are still subject to human nature on the other side of the pond, but at least there’s a mostly functional market that allows users to vote with their euros for whatever they feel is most appropriate.

The defacto “locked” SIM situation in the US simply removes any chance for market forces to do their work. It’s not a technical limitation and Apple probably can make any number of large-ish fortunes by selling the hardware alone (and then co-branding services with a preferred provider, say an Apple-branded MVNO), but American cell user expectations have been set so very, very low that the backslide is hardly noticeable for most folks. But it really bites me where it hurts. I travel a good deal and when I’m on a train, my phone often is my network connection and when I’m not in the US, I still need to be able to call people and do my work. I’m afraid that when I buy an iPhone I’ll stop carrying an iPod, but I’ll still be keeping an eye out for something better. I want convergence, just not sucky, coercive convergence.

Apple is forcing some important issues in the mobile market. With luck, renewed excitement around what your phone should be will force improvement on the other aspects as well.

Update: Cory Doctorow nails it with biting clarity.