JASON Snell, Editorial Director of Macworld, has written a piece suggesting that in order to quell bad publicity about being too controlling, Apple should allow the sideloading of apps directly to iPhones — apps that haven’t gone through Apple’s App Store approval process. He apparently believes that this would greatly dampen criticism and bad press, but the feature itself wouldn’t be used much; just a minority of geeks sideloading a few apps that couldn’t get approved by Apple. That’s all. And the only significant concern is that some of those sideloaded apps might be malware.
It’s worth quoting Snell at length from his interview on The Tech Night Owl LIVE With Gene Steinberg (June 3):
I’m proposing that the App Store remain intact and approved by Apple and actually in this scenario would probably be more tightly controlled by Apple. I think the root of the problem with App Store rejections is that there’s this feeling, which is really accurate, that if Apple doesn’t approve it, you basically don’t have any way — other than, like, jailbreaking which is not gonna happen, I mean it’s an incredibly small community — to get your app out there. There’s no legitimate form of distribution other than the App Store.
So what I’m saying is, you create an alternative path which is basically: people can download a file, and drag it into iTunes, and sync it with their iPhone. If there’s a checkbox that’s unchecked or checked, and a warning comes up, and you say OK I really wanna do this, that you can get that app on there. I’m not saying there needs to be some sort of illicit, parallel app store, although one might be created. And I’m not saying Apple needs to open up the App Store to everything. I don’t think that’s true either. I think the App Store, in a scenario like this, would still be where 99.9% of all apps are sold. Honestly, I don’t think most people would ever use this alternative. But a few, particularly geeky users would use it? It would give Apple the opportunity to say, look, we’re not gonna put this in our store, but you’re free to distribute it in another means.
Now, would that be a real argument? Probably it would not be, because sales outside the App Store would probably be tiny. It would give Apple some cover. And it would end this kind-of, beating on Apple, saying that Apple controls everything, and even though in reality, they would still really control almost anything that anybody cared about. And that goes back to the regular consumer thing. I think regular consumers wouldn’t use this feature. But what it would do, potentially, is just change perception of Apple as being this kind-of controlling company that is not gonna let certain stuff on, and therefore it’s bad, and Android is better. Again, not talking about reality, I’m talking about marketing. I mean, we geeky people can debate the multitasking in iPhone OS 4.0, and there are a lotta people who say, “Well it’s not really multitasking, it’s sort-of a different thing,” but from a consumer point of view what Apple is putting in iPhone OS 4.0 is enough multitasking so that Android phone makers can no longer say, legitimately, we multitask and they don’t. It just takes it away.
And that’s what I’m saying about putting in a switch like this that lets you bypass the App Store if you really, really, really, really want to, is its mainstream effect is almost zero, but it takes away part of what the competition is bashing Apple about right now. And I have to ask the question: Maybe it’s better? Maybe Apple does something like this and it just eliminates all of this criticism that they get, or at least mutes it to the point where the only people criticizing them are angry people on the forums at Engadget and Gizmodo who are— They’ve already bought their Android phone or whatever, and they’re not gonna be an Apple customer anyway. ...
I’m asking the question: Is this enough of a concern, is this permeating enough that Apple should take steps to blunt it, to just knock it off, and say, “You know what? This isn’t even an issue. You can do it if you want, but nobody wants to.” ...
I feel like Apple’s established enough now that they could do this, and it would just shut everybody up, it would shut all the App Store critics up, it would shut the Android people up about it, and Apple could move on to something else and really compete on features and usability and things like that, instead of on this, kind-of accusation of being this completely closed-off, dictatorial regime. So why not do it?
Since Snell is a big guy at Macworld, and Steinberg frequently features pro-Apple writer Daniel Eran Dilger, I think it’s safe to assume that neither Snell nor Steinberg is purposely ignoring the woolly mammoth in the room — they really just aren’t seeing it. Which I find greatly alarming. But I suspect Apple does see it, so I’m not too alarmed.
The Huge, Ugly Mammoth
If Apple turned on Snell’s proposed sideloading feature, what would typically be sideloaded? A few obscure, unapproved, geeky apps? Maybe some App-Store-rejected porn, or quasi-defamatory, political apps? No. Typically sideloaded would be: Super Monkey Ball. And Assassin’s Creed. And Talking Carl. And Todo. And Pocket God. And Tetris. And FatBooth. And Bento. And Bejeweled 2. And Edge. And Monster Pinball. And Dragon’s Lair. And Zombieville USA. And a hundred thousand more or so. Some resourceful crackers out there somewhere will strip the DRM off of all these apps — then sideloading provides a way for everyone to install them.
Typical iPhone owners don’t consider themselves pirates. But if they see their friends, relatives, and neighbors downloading tons of free apps from the internet, and nothing bad happening to their phones, then they really start to feel like chumps if they pay. The same thing that happened to music with MP3 would happen to iPhone apps.
Now of course the iPod and iPhone (and now the iPad), have always played your MP3 files, no-questions-asked. But the MP3 phenomenon was in full swing well before the iPod existed, and it’s arguable that no music player could have big success if it refused to play MP3 files of unknown origin. And, most of the music in those MP3 files was created years or even decades before MP3 itself existed.
iPhone apps, on the other hand, didn’t exist at all before the iPhone, and have been created entirely by programmers who intend that their app be sold on iPhones and iPod Touches. The iPhone has a seen a burst of creative app development unlike anything for any other platform (including desktop Windows — remember that Windows has been around for a long time, and includes many apps that wouldn’t work well on any phone). 200,000 apps in two years is pretty incredible. And no, it’s not a dozen good apps plus 199,988 crap apps. I think the number of useful and/or enjoyable apps is a similar percentage to the total number of apps as it is on any other platform. (Or maybe it’s even better if you remember that Apple’s approval process directly or indirectly filters out a lot of seriously junky, buggy apps that you and I never see in the App Store at all.)
Raising the Iceberg
Think of the pool of potential iPhone app developers as an iceberg. The geekiest, nerdiest of those developers — i.e. the ones who would spend significant time writing a fairly cool app even if they knew that most users would sideload their app and never pay a dime to use it — are the tip of the iceberg that shows above the water. Below the water is a massive, mostly untapped (until now) set of not-so-nerdy developers who would love to spend serious time writing good, mass-market apps — if they thought they would make some decent money doing it. If not, then they won’t; they’ll spend that time doing something else.
By requiring all apps to go through its App Store — and by making “jailbreaking” (disabling Apple’s app control) enough of a pain-in-the-ass to effectively discourage the overwhelming majority of iPhone users from attempting it — Apple has found a way to lift the whole developer iceberg up out of the water. They’ve done this by creating the first app development environment where the end-user has to pay the developer’s asking price, or else not use the app. That means a lot to the non-nerd developer. And that’s what’s fueling this huge (and growing) explosion of app development for the iPhone and iPod Touch.
If Rob “Die Apple Die” Enderle was advocating an iPhone sideloading option while being uncritically interviewed by Paul “Why Didn’t the Amiga Win” Thurrott, then I would unhesitatingly assume that they know full well what would really happen if Apple allowed sideloading, and that they want it to happen. They want Apple to lose hold of the developer iceberg, sending it plunging back into the sea. But Snell? Interviewed by Steinberg? And even the Macalope chiming in that Apple should allow sideloading?? That’s a little scary.
Please, Steve Jobs, tell me you see this hulking mammoth looming just next to us. Please, Steve, don’t let go of the iceberg you’ve raised. Don’t turn on sideloading.
Update 2010.07.04 — The European Union apparently is considering an interoperability law that, my guess is, would require Apple to allow app sideloading. This, as I explained above, would utterly ruin the market for iPhone and iPad apps. Or, if Apple complied with this new law by allowing sideloading only in the EU (presumably with an iOS version that can’t be easily installed outside the EU), then the app store would be merely damaged, not ruined, because only EU iPhone/iPad users would be able to sideload all the App Store apps for free. Maybe the EU lawmakers would be fine with that, knowing that their electorate is pleased to get all those thousands of apps for nothing.
But will Apple allow it? Apple’s been down this road before, and seems unafraid to just sever relations with anyone who tries to squeeze them.
And will the USA sit still for it? Maybe the American government could create a new law, say, the “Maximum Interopability With EU Intellectual Property Act:”
All persons and businesses shall be free within the USA to reproduce EU-created intellectual works with no repercussions that normally would be applicable under copyright law.
Of course, I’m sure the USA will never pass such a law. Just like I’m sure the EU won’t force Apple to effectively give away all its third-party app developers’ works for free.
Update 2010.07.26 — U.S. government rules that hacking your iPhone to install unapproved apps is legal, fair use. Hopefully, this just means people can’t be prosecuted for hacking their phones, or helping others do so. Presumably, Apple can keep using technical means against it. (Update: Apple just responded — hacking your phone still voids the warranty. Just like it may be legal to take your TV apart with a screwdriver, but it still voids the warranty.)
Update 2012.06.05 — Hard to believe: John Gruber in The Talk Show (June 1, 2012):
You know, if Apple switched to make the iPhone like Mac OS as we know it now, where by default it only takes apps from the App Store, but you can go into settings, and flip a couple switches, and say all right, now you can install apps from any signed developer in the Apple Developer Program. You can just download it from their website, in Mobile Safari, maybe right on your phone. Download it from their website, put in an administrator password or something like that, to authorize it, and then, boom, you’ve got that app on your phone. And then maybe a third option that would say, install applications from any source, whether they’re signed or not. And then give you a little warning about, you know, why you don’t wanna do that. If they did that, a lot of people would rejoice. I don’t know that it would be a bad thing.