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Open Source – The Real iPhone Killer

The iPhone is the king of the hill when it comes to smartphones. Everyone knows that, right? Well, that isn’t exactly true – in North America RIM (the Blackberry) holds about half of the entire smartphone market. Globally, Symbian-based devices (primarily from Nokia) are the most popular, followed by the Blackberry and then the iPhone (with Windows Mobile and Android getting small portions of the pie, followed by the once-mighty Palm).

More accurately, the iPhone is the king of the web-browser smartphone in North America, and its share of the market has been growing steadily due to its popularity. Its functionality, beauty, simplicity, and wealth of applications have had tech bloggers the world round wondering if another mobile platform will ever be able to unseat Apple from its throne. Names like Google (Nexus One) and Motorola (Droid) are speculated to be true iPhone rivals, but so far the jury is out.

But the Real iPhone killer isn’t a device. It isn’t even an operating system, though Android does seem poised to start taking large chunks out of the iPhone’s lead. The killer is Apple’s philosophy; closed source, closed marketplace, tight controls. Recently Apple made the news (in a bad way) by choosing to censor (most) sexually-themed applications out of the marketplace. By restricting choice as to what applications are available, even for (ostensibly) safety reasons, Apple is shooting itself in the foot.

Many people have pointed out Apple’s hypocrisy in allowing applications from Playboy, Penthouse, and Sports Illustrated (swimsuits) to remain available while restricting the applications of smaller developers and publishers that provide much less racy content. A personal example can be found in the little video I created a regarding a so-called “sexually explicit” application from one of the sites I work for, SuicideGirls.com. The Flip Strip app showed sexy SGs fully clothed at first, but when the phone is turned upside-down the ladies strip down to their underwear. For some reason Apple deemed this application to be less appropriate for public consumption than, for instance, one depicting nearly-naked Playboy bunnies.

Here’s a video segment on G4 with me displaying the now Banned Flip Strip application:

It is not hard to conclude that if you pay Apple enough money they will allow your app to remain available for download, regardless of content or appropriateness. I am not suggesting that Apple is going to be harmed more than trivially by this particular gaffe, but it is representative of a much larger problem for the company.

That problem, growing larger day by day, is an open market, open source philosophy supported by companies such as Google with their Linux-based Android OS, and Nokia with their Symbian OS (which was closed-source, but the source code was opened/released earlier this month).

The issue here is choice: While the iTunes marketplace has an incredible variety of developed, mature applications, all of those apps have gone through an Apple evaluation process.

If they don’t meet the requirements they aren’t offered for download (unless you jailbreak the iPhone, but that’s another story), and as we’ve seen recently those requirements may change on a moment’s notice, causing untold damage to small developers and publishers. Other offerings such as the Android marketplace also contain a huge number of applications, a number which is growing day by day, without Apple’s restrictive, arbitrary limitations.

govinator-w

Even the Governator uses the Android HTC Magic Phone

Because an OS like Android is open to all, it is being launched on more and more devices, on more and more providers’ networks. Instead of just one company (Apple) providing a handful of nearly identical (i)phones on only one network (AT&T) for a fixed price (too much $$$ per month), Android will soon be seen everywhere on devices from every manufacturer. Android smartphones can already be found in many different form factors and styles, and even different versions of the OS itself; HTC launched certain Android phones with a retooled user interface called Sense (Which is what I have on my Droid Eris).

We are already seeing some features on Android that we don’t see with the iPhone…

…such as Android 2.x’s Google Maps Navigation, which I find to be just as accurate as my old Magellan GPS (as long as I don’t leave 3G coverage areas for too long). I also love the Google Sky application, great for playing around while lying in bed looking up toward the stars.

I am a big proponent of free and open source software, so Android excites me for many reasons. However, the bottom line for me is choice. Open up the marketplace to everything. If there is a call for it, the first thing parents will download is an application that gives them greater control over their children’s own choices. If people want porn on their phones (*raises hand*), let them have their mobile pr0n! Someone is going to provide an application for every conceivable need, and we shouldn’t have to install new firmware to gain access to it.

With free choice comes possibility, and with possibility comes the future.

Apple, that sound you hear is the iTunes death knell.

  • xen

    Nice article, but what about Maemo and MeeGo?

    I have no intentions on ever using Android as Google is too integrated with it. I prefer my OS to be unbiased so I can choose for myself.

  • The problem with smart phones is that they are small computers. Because of that, developers can do many many things with them. Things that manufacturers (of devices or manufacturers of the operating system that is running on the device) don’t want them to do. Viruses, Trojans, etc, …

    That’s why the screenings. Apple is doing it, Google, Nokia too. As a developer and service provider I can understand their concerns and their fears. Smart phones are more like computers, they have bugs, flaws and they are becoming (un)reliable as computers. Ordinary users are not used to that. Phones simply work and computers don’t. If computer crashes everybody just shrugs and power cycles.

    Yes, ‘free market’ is the key here, we need choice. But for free market you need certain critical mass. Critical mass of consumers and critical mass of manufacturers/vendors.

    • This goes back to what I was saying below. Average Joe doesn’t see their phone as a mini-computer, they see it as a phone, a device that they turn on and use when needed. As such, the device needs to be reliable and convenient. That’s why you don’t see many non-geeks carrying around a smart phone, until the iPhone came out and made it easy.

    • Silvanus

      What about security certificate/digital signature technology? There is no good reason Apple needs to completely control the devices it sells. And as for viruses & shizzle, Macs & popular Linux distros ‘just work’. If a platform is well designed, expensive 3rd party security software shouldn’t be necessary. I would rather an open market, and be required to use some common sense, than a closed market mothered by Apple that has only one porn genre. I think the average luser is ready for that.

  • Nice article, Nixie. I believe you are absolutely correct in your assertions. Openness is key to fostering a more powerful and competitive environment. It allows developers to not reinvent the wheel for every piece of their software, and for an open marketplace it allows a more Darwinian (and thusly less monolithic) selection of what software thrives. The Darwinian model of survival of the fittest is a natural solution which should not be overlooked, and it is the ultimate model for open source software.

    While some major components of Apple’s iPhone (and OS X) OS are open source (like WebKit which both iPhone browser and Google Chrome and Android browser are based on) the vast majority of the developer exposed stack is not. This is Apple shooting itself in the foot because they are imposing artificial limitations as to who can even develop for their platform via requiring this for-pay proprietary development stack. Combine that with their horrifically naive app store filtering policy and you get a recipe for monocultured one size fits some apps. But it’s ok Darwinian selection is still at play here… people can just choose to go to the platform that gives you real choice, Android.

    • One of the problems of open source is that we’re trying to build a car with 22 different wheels. 😉

      Some competition is ok, but not too much. I’d rather have one good sound framework for Linux instead three of them all a bit buggy. 🙂

      • The gluttony of choice is definitely a hindrance to mass adoption of OSS operating systems but I think another issue is this idea of “not reinventing the wheel.” Although I think that’s a good concept to live by, I think it’s also good sometimes to completely start from scratch, forget all your preconceived notions and reinvent the wheel. You could make it better.

        • These two things are both needed in balance. Unfortunately nobody knows what the correct balance is. 🙂

          I know for a few OSS projects that need complete re-haul, PHP and WordPress are good examples. 😉

      • Silvanus

        “Some competition is ok, but not too much”
        > I’m sorry, I just cannot sympathise with that. I really do not get your chicken. The more competition, the better! There are always a few that stand out in the open source world, and are ready for you to use even if you are not experienced; for example, in the window manager world, there are KDE and Gnome. There being a large choice of distribution doesn’t hurt at all. They share with each other (sometimes..), more approaches are used. There are always a few ‘standard’, popular distributions you can more-or-less rely on, but still a lot of innovation.

        • No, some competition is ok, too much competition will hurt users. Imagine having 20 ‘one man band’ projects instead of 4 projects each with five people on it.

          Multiple desktop environments? Fine but each having its own sound server and solution for playing sound?

          Running KDE application in Gnome requires a bunch of KDE processes in the background. If you’re writing application that deals with sound you’ll have to decide what to support. Alsa? Pulseaudio? Arts? Oldschool esd and oss?

          We don’t need three different API’s to deal with hardware, we need one.

          Low level stuff needs to be standardized and unified so that higher level stuff can offer interoperability and developers don’t need to decide who their target audience is.

          Too much competition doesn’t lower prices for open source users it usually lowers the quality since developers are scatered.

  • Xen has a good point here – Android is not the only, and for sure not the best smartphone operating system out there. And yea – neither of the three major players in the field – Maemo and Symbian in addition to the aforementioned – is perfect and it’s hard to choose one. But still it’s at least good to mention the others.

    And no, I don’t think that Android will be everywhere – Maemo is far more advanced, just look at what it doeas on N900, and Symbian is already a mature system with large developer and user base. Android has hype, and in most cases nothing else to offer in comparison with the two, so… The same goes for the horrible mistake CromeOS is going to be, but that’s another thing.

    Overall – I think that the system should be secure first, then we should educate the users about the risks of installing unprooven software and giving it privileges on our OS, and only apply minimal controll over which apps can be released and which can’t. And for Apple introducing selective censorship based on how much the particular developer pays them to pass the certification – well, as you say, a shot in the foot. With both barrels.

  • I’m torn on this subject. On one hand, I love my iPhone and using OS X, but on the other hand I also love using Linux and am an OSS promoter. The problem comes when you are strictly one or the other I think. The main point that you’re missing with having an OSS mobile operating system like Android is that 99% of users could care less if their phone uses an open-source or closed-source operating system, they just want their device to work, to do what it claims to do, and to do so in a reasonably quick and crash-free experience. That’s where I think Apple has it right. The reason why they won’t allow Flash is because it’s a huge source of vulnerability for the underlying operating system and is prone to cause crashes because of it’s flakiness. The same ideology comes into play for their application approval process. They verify that it runs stably, doesn’t interfere with other apps, don’t cause the phone to drop to a crawl and provides the user a good experience while still abiding by their guidelines. You would also hope that this would prevent a lot of cruft and useless applications littering the application store, but that seems to be hit or miss unfortunately. Without the same approval process, such as on Android, you have issues with some applications that aren’t as clean and polished as ones on the iPhone. I’ve even heard of some crashing the entire phone. This has only ever happened on my iPhone with applications that I got through jailbreaking and I knew would most likely cause the phone to crash.
    I personally think that OSS really is just a geek thing and the average joe could care less and only cares that their device works smoothly and reliably.

    • Russ

      Justin, I agree that OSS as a conscious choice is just a geek thing and the average joe couldn’t care less, but I disagree with your evaluation and justification of the Apple way of doing things. I read recently in an article (http://www.informationweek.com/blog/main/archives/2008/03/jobs_flash_not.html;jsessionid=YM50NQ435E4PVQE1GHOSKH4ATMY32JVN) that the reason Steve Jobs hasn’t yet included flash on the iPhone has nothing to do with whether or not it is a source of vulnerability. He hasn’t included it because it performs sluggishly on the iPhone. And as far as the process apps have to go through to get into the app store being better, I don’t really see any proof of that being the case. The app mentioned in Nixie’s article hasn’t had any reports of crashing anyone’s iPhone and yet it was apparently removed which stinks more of censorship. I’ll stick with an OS that allows me to choose whether or not I want to install an app rather than choosing for me whether or not the app is appropriate, thanks.