Wednesday, May 13, 2009

iPhone scofflaws continue

Some 23 months after the introduction of the iPhone, users (or at least hackers) are still rebelling about Apple’s control over what is and is not allowed as a third party app. The NYT notes the ongoing fight between Apple, hackers who have done a series of “jailbreak” efforts on the iPhone, and the legal supporters of the jailbreakers. As with other circumvention efforts, Apple is citing the Clinton-era DMCA to shut down the hackers.

The controversy for some apps is understandable. Given AT&T’s 3G bandwidth problems caused by the iPhone, it’s not surprising that it doesn’t want the iPhone used for even more download bandwidth by “tethering” a connected laptop. Thus, Apple tossed such an application last summer. T-Mobile/Google had the same reaction to a tethering app developed for Android.

Other choices of what’s verboten are more surprising. The Times mentions a videocamera app, which seems a fine way to sell iPhones with more flash RAM.

If the hackers fear being locked out (after jail-breaking), their converse fear is that Apple itself will provide the missing functionality in a future release (possibly for free). For example, one November CNET report said that the iPhone 3.0 will support tethering this year.

Apple’s decisions of what to exclude have at times seen arbitrary and rarely explained. That is certainly the inherent problem of having only one (authorized) distribution channel with a near-monopoly on reaching customers.

Apple solved most (but not all) of the demand for the original jailbreaking by providing its own SDK and a distribution channel. Let’s hope that the current strictures are only a transitory issue en route to a fully extensible device.

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