The good tends to outweigh the bad for me when it comes to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). To the extent that they advocate for the free speech and civil liberties on the Internet and in other electronic forms, I’m in their corner. It’s articles like Apple, Give Us a “Freedom of Choice” Button, however, where you’d think EFF isn’t serious in the work they do and which make me want to run away screaming.
The state one of their general philosophies thusly:
The principle is simple: just as you get to choose whatever after-market modification you want to make to your car, whatever disk drive you want to add to your mainframe, and whatever third party add-on you want for your software, you should be able to choose the apps and hardware you want for your iPhone. You should be able to choose your network provider. And you should be able to leave the walled garden and continue to use your device after you’ve moved on.
This utopian vision of rainbows and unicorns fades as soon you do even a basic critique. It starts with a bit of a Straw Man. Who says you’re not free to do whatever you like to your car, mainframe or iPhone? Take the car example. If you want to put an aftermarket accessory (I advise Rockwell Automation’s Retro Encabulator) in your Honda Civic so it can do 200 MPH, you’re free to do so. Similarly, if you want to jailbreak your iPhone, and add all kinds of snazzy, non-approved apps, you can. Isn’t America great? But let’s be clear, EFF: You are out of your nut if you think that Honda or Apple should be on the hook for supporting these modifications.
The “you should be able to choose your network provider” is similarly crazy. Apple’s iPhone is a GSM device, so it literally will not work on Verizon or Sprint. I believe even T-Mobile operates on different GSM frequencies for its 3G. EFF is implicitly calling for Apple to build a different iPhone. Now when the 4G networks arrive we will have a standard Apple can easily support in one phone and I’m willing to bet that we see multiple carriers in the US. (Apple already has multiple carriers in many overseas markets and Apple also tends to sell more phones when they have multiple carriers. I would be surprised if once it’s technologically feasible Apple doesn’t offer the iPhone on multiple carriers in the US.) But the idea that Apple should shoulder the burden and expense of a building a different phone just because EFF thinks they should is ludicrous.
This, says EFF, “is about end-user choice, and Apple doesn’t seem to believe you deserve any.” Are consumers not free to choose any other cell phone? I understand this isn’t the choice EFF is talking about, but it’s worth noting anyway. Consumers (and EFF) are always free to pick from another phone if they’re not happy with Apple’s. It’s not like Apple has a monopoly on cellphones or smartphones.
Here’s what EFF is talking about:
Through its control over the iPhone’s software and its mandatory approval process, Apple is pushing the idea that a manufacturer should be able to dictate how things can interoperate with a product at every layer – from the software, applications, and services that can be developed and sold, to the consumer’s use of the device, to the other devices that can physically plug into it.
Yes, this is exactly what Apple is pushing, only it’s not a problem, it’s part of what makes the iPhone great. When one company insures the interoperability of a product at every layer—no easy task, mind you—things work better. The iPhone is an excellent example of how a device is vastly improved precisely because of this attention to detail.
And in fact the iPhone does run apps that don’t come from the App Store. Apple has long supported on its iPhone web-based apps in a non-curated fashion. In other words, any developer can create a web app for the iPhone and any iPhone user can use that app on his iPhone. Apple has no oversight of this process at all. Nobody needs Apple’s approve to create a web app and nobody needs Apple’s approve to put it on their phone. You don’t even have to jailbreak the thing. The iPhone is built to run these things. Presently, Apple lists some 1700 web apps on its web apps page.
Now that stands in stark contrast to the more than 200,000 apps in Apple App Store, but that’s because there are huge advantages to developers and consumers in using Apple’s so-called “walled garden.” First, developers have an easy way to monetize their work. Second, developers have a set of programming tools and aids that allow them to take full advantage of the iPhone’s capabilities. Third, for consumers, the App Store creates an easy way to find new and interesting software for their phone. That the software has been vetted by Apple—meaning the source code has been checked for viruses and the like, among other things—is enormous advantage compared to other platforms, notably Android, where malware has already made an appearance and been downloaded by unsuspecting end-users.
The downside for developers (and, by extension, consumers) is that you have to play by Apple’s rules to be in App Store, and Apple has done a poor job codifying exactly what those rules are. Sure 95% of apps are approved and available for purchase within two weeks. And sure, most of the rejected apps have coding errors, don’t do what their description indicates or are in clear violation of Apple’s guidelines. There is no question, however, that some apps fall into a grey area and Apple has done a relatively poor job in clarifying things when this happens.
That said, developers and consumers all want a cellphone that works easily and well. EFF’s misguided arguments are an attack on the very things that Apple does to make that so on the iPhone. As I say, EFF does some fine work. This is not it.