Dear Apple: Please Keep the iPhone Locked Down

by Steve Wildstrom   |   May 31st, 2012

Image of iPhone with padlockEver since Apple introduced the iPhone, first with no third-party apps allowed then permitting apps only under Apple’s strict supervision, there has been hand-wringing in some quarters of the tech world about how Apple’s locked-down mentality would stifle freedom and innovation. The latest blast  against “Apple’s Crystal Prison”comes from the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

While Apple’s products have many virtues, they are marred by an ugly set of restrictions on what users and programmers can do with them. This is most especially true of iOS, though other Apple products sometimes suffer in the same way. In this article we will delve into the kinds of restrictions that Apple, phone companies, and Microsoft have been imposing on mobile computers; the excuses these companies make when they impose these restrictions; the dangers this is creating for open innovation; why Apple in particular should lead the way in fixing this mess. We also propose a bill of rights that need to be secured for people who are purchasing smartphones and other pocket computers.

Fortunately, there’s no reason to believe that Apple is listening to the siren song of openness coming from places like EFF, the Free Software Foundation, Harvard’s Berkman Center, and the Software Freedom Law Center. Completely open systems would give opportunities for anyone with programming skill to get into the guts of any device and see what he or she could do with it. It’s possible that some wonderful things might result. But this same openness clears a pathway for the malicious or the merely incompetent. I don’t care if people want to mess up their own systems, but I don’t want their badly written or downright evil software corrupting mine.

The importance of user experience. By maintaining rigid control over just what software can be loaded onto an iPhone or iPad, Apple has created one of the best user experiences ever. An app that I download from the iTunes App Store may be good, bad, or indifferent in terms of its functionality or its usefulness to me. But I can be confident that it is not going to make a mess of my phone or tablet. And if it does something it shouldn’t, like upload my entire address book without permission, I can be reasonably confident it will be fixed quickly. I don’t have this confidence about any other phone, tablet, or PC except perhaps the fading BlackBerry and the struggling Windows Phone, which have lock-down policies of their own.

For people who really want to mess with their iPhones, they can always jailbreak them and live with the consequences, including a loss of warranty protection. Apple has tried to stop jailbreaking, but has generally been unsuccessful. For the rest of us, the overwhelming majority, we are happy to accept Apple’s restrictions  as the price of increased security and usability. I hate giving up freedom for an illusion of security, but Apple, unlike the Department of Homeland Security, seems to be delivering the real thing.

Misunderstood Gatekeeper. The same folks complaining about the lockdown of iOS are also fretting about new policies for Mac software. But here they seem to be willfully misunderstanding what Apple is doing. Apple recognizes that a Mac is a very different beast than an iOS device and that the sort of restrictions it imposes on iPhones and iPads simply won’t work on Macs. The new Gatekeeper for OS X Mountain Lion does no prevent any user software from being installed. In its default configuration, it will warn against apps that are not digitally signed by a registered Apple developer, but users can easily override the caution and install what they want. Other settings restrict installation only to apps from the Mac App Store, which are approved by Apple and which must obey  new rules requiring sandboxing of apps, or, at the other extreme, allow the installation of anything without objection.

EFF concedes that “fortunately, it will be possible to turn this off in Mountain Lion and install apps from anywhere you want,” but adds, “Apple is continuing down the dangerous road of making their products less open.” Failing to produce evidence of this, EFF’s Micah Lee falls back on hypotheticals: “OS X software authors will find themselves subject to the whims of Apple HQ. What would Mozilla do if Apple refused to authorize Firefox for OS X Mountain Lion, in the same way that Apple refuses to allow a true version of Firefox for the iPhone? Watch half their Mac market share disappear?”

EFF closes with a “Bill of Rights for Mobile Computer Owners.” It’s a strange manifesto, focusing on issues that very, very few users care about, such as the freedom to install the Linux operating system on the phone of your choice. Considering how few people have chosen to install Linux on PCs, where it actually works reasonably well,  this doesn’t seem like a burning issue for most folks. There is nothing in the call about security or ease of use, issues that actually driver users’ choices. This has been a huge blind spot of the free and open software movement for years. And until they take usability seriously, they will be pushed further to the fringes of the tech world and more and more of what we do goes mobile.

 

 

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • Rich

    I’ve never understood what people like the EFF are complaining about. In “Apple’s Crystal Prison” the EFF states:

    “You may have purchased an iPad, but unless you’ve exploited a vulnerability in iOS to jailbreak it, there are many things you cannot install on it.”

    It looks to me as though anyone who wants to jailbreak their Apple device can do that if they have the technical knowledge, and once it’s jailbroken, they can install whatever software they like. It seems likely that the people who want to jailbreak are those who do have technical knowledge.

    If Apple threatens not to honor the warranty on a jailbroken device, is it not possible to un-jailbreak it before taking it to Apple for service?

    • steve_wildstrom

      I believe a full reset will restore a jailbroken iPhone to factory condition. I think apple’s warranty position is really that they wont provide software support to jailbroken devices, which strikes me as perfectly reasonable.

      • BRIKZ

        You see, that is what my main problem with Apple vs. Jailbreakers is: It is totally hypocrisy from their own stated values and roots. They started out in a garage fighting against the “man’ and control, but in this issue they are like the Gestapo. They spread lies and rumors. You can easily set your phone back to “factory” standard after you have jailbroken your phone and they will never know.

        So simply stating that if you jailbreak your phone, your warranty is immediately voided is nothing but a lie and scare tactic. (Maybe in the beginning of jailbreaking you could “brick” your phone, but that happens very rarely if ever now). And the fact that they tried to get congress to pass a law making it illegal is outlandish. It’s my property and I can do with it whatever I want.

        And Finally, Rich you are correct. Even though jailbreaking your phone is getting easier all the time (one of the versions all you had to do was go to a website and download a program), most people that do it, are somewhat technically adverse in computers and programming, and understand what they are doing before they try it. In fact, I have asked to jailbreak many of my friends’ iPhones, Ipads, etc… and most will say “Doesn’t that void my warranty” or “isn’t that illegal” and they just don’t understand how many benefits there are in jailbreaking. And unfortunately due to propaganda and mis-statements they might not ever find out how much better these products could be if they included some basic features and tweaks that you can add yourself.

        • Hoomie Milne

          Apple taking a hardline against jailbreakers was essentially borne out of contractual respect to their exclusive carrier partner AT&T. If they had no such commitment then I’m sure they’d be pretty easy-going about it, in the same way that they were with ripped CD’s on to iTunes and the whole DRM debacle with the music companies in the early days…

        • Hoomie Milne

          Apple taking a hardline against jailbreakers was essentially borne out of contractual respect to their exclusive carrier partner AT&T. If they had no such commitment then I’m sure they’d be pretty easy-going about it, in the same way that they were with ripped CD’s on to iTunes and the whole DRM debacle with the music companies in the early days…

        • Bruce Pondo

          I don’t think they were ever “fighting against the man.” I think they wanted to make a more useable PC for the masses. “Gestapo”? Really?

          No one is telling you not to jailbreak your iOS device. You’re a big boy, and you can do what you want.

        • Bruce Pondo

          I don’t think they were ever “fighting against the man.” I think they wanted to make a more useable PC for the masses. “Gestapo”? Really?

          No one is telling you not to jailbreak your iOS device. You’re a big boy, and you can do what you want.

        • Nigelash

          That was quick.
          Godwin’s Law strikes again…

        • Nigelash

          That was quick.
          Godwin’s Law strikes again…

      • BRIKZ

        You see, that is what my main problem with Apple vs. Jailbreakers is: It is totally hypocrisy from their own stated values and roots. They started out in a garage fighting against the “man’ and control, but in this issue they are like the Gestapo. They spread lies and rumors. You can easily set your phone back to “factory” standard after you have jailbroken your phone and they will never know.

        So simply stating that if you jailbreak your phone, your warranty is immediately voided is nothing but a lie and scare tactic. (Maybe in the beginning of jailbreaking you could “brick” your phone, but that happens very rarely if ever now). And the fact that they tried to get congress to pass a law making it illegal is outlandish. It’s my property and I can do with it whatever I want.

        And Finally, Rich you are correct. Even though jailbreaking your phone is getting easier all the time (one of the versions all you had to do was go to a website and download a program), most people that do it, are somewhat technically adverse in computers and programming, and understand what they are doing before they try it. In fact, I have asked to jailbreak many of my friends’ iPhones, Ipads, etc… and most will say “Doesn’t that void my warranty” or “isn’t that illegal” and they just don’t understand how many benefits there are in jailbreaking. And unfortunately due to propaganda and mis-statements they might not ever find out how much better these products could be if they included some basic features and tweaks that you can add yourself.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I believe a full reset will restore a jailbroken iPhone to factory condition. I think apple’s warranty position is really that they wont provide software support to jailbroken devices, which strikes me as perfectly reasonable.

    • bill

      Apple is getting increasingly aggressive in preventing jailbreaking of phones, which IS causing trouble for other users.

      For example, say tomorrow you upgrade your iphone4 to iOS 5.1.1 and it breaks something that you rely on every day or the performance is miserably slow. Can you revert to the old version of iOS on your phone? nope. Apple’s requirement that all restores onto phones have to be “validated” by iTunes with Apple has shut this down unless you are pretty aware of the man-in-the-middle attack on this done by the jail breakers.

      Apple’s closed nature *is* causing people to try to circumvent their security and is making a market for apps that Apple has no participation in the commerce through the Cydia store. An example:

      I wanted to write an app that monitored your data usage and shut the data off when you reached your cap. Seemed simple enough to do, the user enters their cap numbers, the start date on their contract and the phone keeps track of the rest. Nope, can’t do it and put it in the store. You can do it for a jailbroken phone. The reason is that you have to use a non-public API/Framework to get ahold of the info for the 3G data and then turn something off that isn’t allowed to be turned off from the documented API’s. use one of those and your app is immediately rejected.

      Would this be useful for someone who is trying to manage their data usage? Absolutely, but because of the closed nature of this AAPL would reject it. Any damage to anyone? Nope.

      Had they taken a more open approach that says “if you use a private API you are free to do so, however you must warn the users that you are doing so, that future updates to iOS may break the app and then ask if they want to proceed” would accommodate such things. Apple gets to only warrant the software when the app is official, but these unique and useful things can get done.

      Finally, take a look at jailbreakmatrix.com and watch their 100 reasons to jailbreak video. Some cool stuff in there, some things that I use regularly.

      Oh, and don’t forget that some of the things that Apple is now doing were done first by jailbroken apps, including the app store. I had apps installed on my original iPhone a year before the store becme available. So Apple must think that some of these ideas are worthwhile!

    • bill

      Apple is getting increasingly aggressive in preventing jailbreaking of phones, which IS causing trouble for other users.

      For example, say tomorrow you upgrade your iphone4 to iOS 5.1.1 and it breaks something that you rely on every day or the performance is miserably slow. Can you revert to the old version of iOS on your phone? nope. Apple’s requirement that all restores onto phones have to be “validated” by iTunes with Apple has shut this down unless you are pretty aware of the man-in-the-middle attack on this done by the jail breakers.

      Apple’s closed nature *is* causing people to try to circumvent their security and is making a market for apps that Apple has no participation in the commerce through the Cydia store. An example:

      I wanted to write an app that monitored your data usage and shut the data off when you reached your cap. Seemed simple enough to do, the user enters their cap numbers, the start date on their contract and the phone keeps track of the rest. Nope, can’t do it and put it in the store. You can do it for a jailbroken phone. The reason is that you have to use a non-public API/Framework to get ahold of the info for the 3G data and then turn something off that isn’t allowed to be turned off from the documented API’s. use one of those and your app is immediately rejected.

      Would this be useful for someone who is trying to manage their data usage? Absolutely, but because of the closed nature of this AAPL would reject it. Any damage to anyone? Nope.

      Had they taken a more open approach that says “if you use a private API you are free to do so, however you must warn the users that you are doing so, that future updates to iOS may break the app and then ask if they want to proceed” would accommodate such things. Apple gets to only warrant the software when the app is official, but these unique and useful things can get done.

      Finally, take a look at jailbreakmatrix.com and watch their 100 reasons to jailbreak video. Some cool stuff in there, some things that I use regularly.

      Oh, and don’t forget that some of the things that Apple is now doing were done first by jailbroken apps, including the app store. I had apps installed on my original iPhone a year before the store becme available. So Apple must think that some of these ideas are worthwhile!

      • Rich

        I was talking about jailbreaking your own phone or your friends’ devices, and we seem to agree that you’re able to do that if you’re technically aware. If you’re speaking about jailbreaking phones you’ve bought and selling them, then you’re getting into commercial activity and I think that involves different issues than your freedom to do what you want with your own phone. If you go into business selling Apple’s products you’re a potential competitor and it’s hardly surprising that Apple might oppose you.

      • Rich

        I was talking about jailbreaking your own phone or your friends’ devices, and we seem to agree that you’re able to do that if you’re technically aware. If you’re speaking about jailbreaking phones you’ve bought and selling them, then you’re getting into commercial activity and I think that involves different issues than your freedom to do what you want with your own phone. If you go into business selling Apple’s products you’re a potential competitor and it’s hardly surprising that Apple might oppose you.

  • Rich

    I’ve never understood what people like the EFF are complaining about. In “Apple’s Crystal Prison” the EFF states:

    “You may have purchased an iPad, but unless you’ve exploited a vulnerability in iOS to jailbreak it, there are many things you cannot install on it.”

    It looks to me as though anyone who wants to jailbreak their Apple device can do that if they have the technical knowledge, and once it’s jailbroken, they can install whatever software they like. It seems likely that the people who want to jailbreak are those who do have technical knowledge.

    If Apple threatens not to honor the warranty on a jailbroken device, is it not possible to un-jailbreak it before taking it to Apple for service?

  • Coolhanduke

    Methinks there’s a misunderstanding twixt “features and functions” vs. “customization”. “Openness” is vapor talk. It doesn’t exist. What does exist is “in the beginning was the word” and in the world of tech products the word is the features and function document. It’s the edifice upon which the product is built. Has nothing to do with freedom, openness or accessibility. Apple puts user comfort into its features and functions doc. Seems to me that people who rant about openness do not understand how things are built. Shame. Wastes a lot of energy and clouds thinking.

  • Coolhanduke

    Methinks there’s a misunderstanding twixt “features and functions” vs. “customization”. “Openness” is vapor talk. It doesn’t exist. What does exist is “in the beginning was the word” and in the world of tech products the word is the features and function document. It’s the edifice upon which the product is built. Has nothing to do with freedom, openness or accessibility. Apple puts user comfort into its features and functions doc. Seems to me that people who rant about openness do not understand how things are built. Shame. Wastes a lot of energy and clouds thinking.

  • AryuGaetu

    If the house you want is in a gated community, you either buy it or not. It’s quite pompous and egocentric to insist a whole community should remove the existing useful gate and install bars on the individual homes just so you can enjoy the “freedom” of less security. Some of us bought our home because it IS a gated community. We’ve already seen what happened to the other communities that were left to find their own windows’ security. Some people never bothered and now they are constantly reinstalling new windows due to vandalism. If you don’t touch my gated community, I won’t touch your windows.

  • AryuGaetu

    If the house you want is in a gated community, you either buy it or not. It’s quite pompous and egocentric to insist a whole community should remove the existing useful gate and install bars on the individual homes just so you can enjoy the “freedom” of less security. Some of us bought our home because it IS a gated community. We’ve already seen what happened to the other communities that were left to find their own windows’ security. Some people never bothered and now they are constantly reinstalling new windows due to vandalism. If you don’t touch my gated community, I won’t touch your windows.

  • Larry Martin

    I agree. However, needs to start approving apps that will allow people to more customizing the UI. Apple’s UI to me is so boring. I can’t change Icons, Folders, the Dock, etc. As much as I love the simple UI, its lacking customization unlike Android.

  • Larry Martin

    I agree. However, needs to start approving apps that will allow people to more customizing the UI. Apple’s UI to me is so boring. I can’t change Icons, Folders, the Dock, etc. As much as I love the simple UI, its lacking customization unlike Android.

  • David Owen

    There are plenty of perfectly valid reasons to jailbreak your phone,which have nothing to do with loading something illegal on the phone. I’ve dropped my phone several times, and as a result the home button will work sometimes, and not work sometimes. When it doesn’t work, the phone is pretty much useless – try using your iphone without the home button. By jailbreaking the phone, I can assign the home button functionality to other buttons, thus avoiding having to buy another phone.

  • David Owen

    There are plenty of perfectly valid reasons to jailbreak your phone,which have nothing to do with loading something illegal on the phone. I’ve dropped my phone several times, and as a result the home button will work sometimes, and not work sometimes. When it doesn’t work, the phone is pretty much useless – try using your iphone without the home button. By jailbreaking the phone, I can assign the home button functionality to other buttons, thus avoiding having to buy another phone.

  • immovableobject

    It seems to me that that there are two kinds of people: those who insist on the ability to customize and tweak their personal electronics, and those who don’t seem to mind giving up that freedom in exchange for elegance, simplicity, and security. Apple’s draws its customers from that second set of people, and judging by their success, I’d say the latter group represents the majority of consumers.

    It is unrealistic to expect Apple to cater to the geek minority. They tend to be loud, obnoxious, dogmatic whiners who populate online tech discussions far in excess of their proportion of the customer base. Let Apple’s competitors knock themselves out attempting to satisfy them.

  • immovableobject

    It seems to me that that there are two kinds of people: those who insist on the ability to customize and tweak their personal electronics, and those who don’t seem to mind giving up that freedom in exchange for elegance, simplicity, and security. Apple’s draws its customers from that second set of people, and judging by their success, I’d say the latter group represents the majority of consumers.

    It is unrealistic to expect Apple to cater to the geek minority. They tend to be loud, obnoxious, dogmatic whiners who populate online tech discussions far in excess of their proportion of the customer base. Let Apple’s competitors knock themselves out attempting to satisfy them.

    • mac

      and what you don’t understand is that the latter group non-tech savy people are disappearing and 85 year olds are operating computers and smart phones. Apple needs to grow with the changing times

      • immovableobject

        It is ironic that you would use that argument. One of the reasons that 85 year olds are operating computers and smart phones is that Apple led the way in showing how to design devices and user interfaces that could be operated by “normal” people. It is the availability of Apple products (and the Apple -inspired features and design priorities which have been adopted by its competitors) which have made this possible. I’ll bet that very few of the aforementioned oldsters are rooting their phones and building and modifying their own Windows and Linux computers.

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  • Tzr_155

    There is freedom of choice, if anyone don’t like Apple’s Crystal Prison, go ahead to get the Android phones. There are so many of them, in different screen size and price range. Android makers always have the the “faster cpu, more memory and better design”, some top model also come with free dropbox space too! And they are always cheaper than iphone !! Go get the open system Android and leave us alone! Why these people keep asking Apple to be more “open”? Is it because they knew the crystal prison of iOS system is the main reason why so many people choosing iphone?

  • Tzr_155

    There is freedom of choice, if anyone don’t like Apple’s Crystal Prison, go ahead to get the Android phones. There are so many of them, in different screen size and price range. Android makers always have the the “faster cpu, more memory and better design”, some top model also come with free dropbox space too! And they are always cheaper than iphone !! Go get the open system Android and leave us alone! Why these people keep asking Apple to be more “open”? Is it because they knew the crystal prison of iOS system is the main reason why so many people choosing iphone?

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  • Terrible

    iPhones are clearly impractical. Using a device as mass storage can be expected by even the most ancient MP3 players – you should not be forced to use a particular software application, especially with the lag of iTunes. As an iPhone user myself, I have got so fed up with this – they are made with great quality, ‘feel good’ in your hand, but fail to provide even the most basic of functions. Enough of this slavery with apple…