September 30, 2007

Upgrades Hollow the iPhone’s Core

Filed under: innovation, open, phone — wseltzer @ 8:50 am

Apple’s recent update, which “bricked” unlocked iPhones and reverted the rest to block third party applications, caused Gizmodo’s reviewer to revise early enthusiasm for the gadget:

It’s about 3 months after the iPhone launch, and happy with the improvements, I was planning to change our “Wait” verdict to a full-on and rabid “Buy”. That wasn’t because of Apple, but because of the cool apps being offered by independent developers. All that came to an end yesterday after the new Apple firmware 1.1.1 neutered the handset. Sure, unlocked iPhones were broken. But more importantly, Apple wiped away the powerful programs that helped push the iPhone to greatness. With this, I’m going to have to move our recommendation from “Wait” to “Don’t hold your breath.” I’m done with this handset until third-party apps come back.

For a brief while, it seemed Apple got it. Lowering the iPhone’s price enlarged the virtual network of users and potential hackers who might get one, and acquiescence toward third-party applications let those flourish, both expanding the device’s utility beyond what was built in by Apple. Then, just as the gadget’s ecosystem was getting interesting, Apple razed the ground for some new silos.

Some Gizmodo commenters ridicule the protest, arguing that few iPhone owners are hackers, but they overlook the range of hack or customization desires. After all, people regularly install new programs on their Mac computers; they buy an estimated $1 billion in iPod accessories annually. When people spend up to a third of the price of their iPods to customize the devices’ appearance or connectivity options, it’s because those increase the value of the devices. It’s not a leap to expect they also want to add some internal customization to their phones.

But Apple’s Mr. Hyde side took precedence once again, as it bowed to the whims of its carrier partners: As the NYT reports, “Steven P. Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, has said the company wanted to maintain control over the iPhone’s functions to protect carrier networks and to make sure the phone was not damaged.”

All of which suggests that no matter how large a gadget’s virtual network is, it’s vulnerable if a closure-prone sponsor with closed-source core is its chief node.

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