Four stories on why iPhone third-party apps matter, from a long-time Treo user

I mentioned earlier how disappointed I am to see that the iPhone will not support installation of third-party applications unless those apps are approved by Apple, and presumably distributed by Apple or Cingular. Merlin Mann continues to speak for me on the impact of this; I heartily endorse both his Digg-inspired assessment that this “does indeed suck monkey butt” and also his prediction that the decision will have no appreciable effect on sales — in the short term, at least. (More on that later.) Will I never buy an iPhone because of this decision? Never is a long time, and as Merlin says, who knows how this could evolve. Every Dashboard widget I’ve ever installed has come from Apple’s Dashboard site, and that doesn’t seem to have made anything worse about Dashboard for me; and I’d seriously consider paying hundreds of dollars just for the video/iPod combo. But I wouldn’t pay $1,936.00 (link via Consumerist) for the iPhone unless they reverse their call on third party apps.

Why does this matter so much to me? And why should it matter to anyone other than supergeek Radar/Digg/Slashdot readers, as one of the commenters on my earlier post asked? Randall Stross makes one argument for why in today’s New York Times, and Cory Doctorow takes that argument further at Boing Boing. I’d like to add a few stories, though, from my four years as an owner of three different Treo phones — not theory, not politics, not necessarily supergeekdom, just practical reasons why the open PalmOS software has mattered dramatically to my use of the Treo.

  1. When the Treo 300 first launched on the Sprint network, Sprint did not provide text messaging for it. A third-party developer called PDAapps came up with Treo300SMS, an installable application that acted as a gateway to Sprint’s web form for sending and receiving text messages. A total hack, and something Sprint would never have approved had they been given that control. Text messaging is a natural application for a Treo since it has a decent, usable keyboard, and Sprint charges people to receive text messages, so it benefitted them to have the capability — but they hadn’t gotten to it yet. As a result of having an open platform, PDAapps made the Treo 300 more useful and appealing than it would have been until Sprint and Handspring got around to making text messaging work. Of course, now every Treo comes with an excellent SMS application, but for the months that passed between the 300′s launch and SMS support, third-party development filled in the gaps, to both Sprint and Handpring’s benefit. An open platform allows developers to implement functionality the platform provider hasn’t gotten around to yet.
  2. The Treo has always come with an email application, and quite frankly that application has always been pretty sucky. The usability was poor, and at least at first (I haven’t checked recently), the mail app didn’t support protocols and security systems that some mail servers require. Fortunately, a third-party developer, SnapperMail, implemented a fantastic email client that supports all sorts of systems (POP3, IMAP, SSL, and so on), and includes applications to read image attachments, open zip files, and more. (Don’t take my word for it — Walt Mossberg of the Wall St. Journal calls it, “the cleverest and most capable hand-held e-mail program I’ve seen [...] the closest thing on a hand-held to the kind of full-featured e-mail programs people use on their PCs.”) Because the Treo lets me install third-party apps, I’m not stuck with whatever crappy email program Palm decides to give me, and probably frees them from customer demands they otherwise would have to rush to fulfill — again, to their benefit. An open platform allows developers to reimplement and replace functionality the platform provider has gotten around to, but has failed to do well.
  3. When the Treo 300 came out, it did not have Bluetooth; that didn’t arrive until a later model. It did, though, have a USB cable for connecting to your computer, and the clever developers at JuneFabrics came up with PdaNet, which allowed you to use your Treo as a laptop modem through the USB cable. When I found this, I was overjoyed, since it meant I could get around paying outrageous fees to hotels for connecting to the Internet while on the road. I know from people at Palm that Sprint absolutely flipped out when they heard about PdaNet, and can easily surmise they’d never have approved its use. Later, when Palm added Bluetooth to the Treo, Sprint shipped it with Bluetooth networking (which allows you to do the same thing PdaNet does, without the cable) disabled. I and many other Treo fans flipped out and promised to leave the platform, and Sprint relented, contacting many of the bloggers who had complained and saying, “This sort of use only represents a pretty small fraction of Sprint Vision customers, so we see it as one of those areas where if this is how customers choose to connect, we don’t stand in the way.” (June Fabrics also went ahead and implemented Bluetooth networking anyways.) In this case, an application Sprint immediately hated and feared wound up in the wild, and in the end Sprint determined that it was causing them little or no harm. Like the movie industry reacting to VHS, what they thought might be the death of them instead turned out to increase the utility of their network, and made people like me happier with their products. An open platform allows developers to meet needs that scare the platform provider, and allows consumers to have those needs met where otherwise the platform provider would block a capability.
  4. PalmOS has over 20,000 applications available for it, developed over the ten years the platform has been around. On my Treo, I use or have used the Oxford English dictionary, Google Maps, Scrabble, Monopoly, Bejeweled, a diet and exercise tracker, a BART schedule, a crossword puzzle program (which lets me download and play the New York Times crossword puzzle anywhere I am), a shopping list keeper, a currency converter, various flight trackers, as well as the email, SMS, and networking apps I mentioned above, and many more. My wife and I played Scrabble on BART last night after looking up the BART schedule and checking times for the movie we were going to see — all on the Treo. (Geeky though this is, one of the first things I wondered about the iPhone was, how long until it supports crossword puzzles?) The result of this is that I am far more bonded to the Treo than I ever would be without those applications. As a phone, calendar, and contact manager, the Treo is nice, but with that list above, it becomes much more. I don’t know how many applications Windows Mobile has, but their site claims “hundreds”; I assume the count is really in the thousands, though also thousands less than for PalmOS. Why does Palm continue to hold its own against Microsoft in this realm? I’m sure that some of it has to do with simplicity, but some of it, I bet, has to do with how much more you can do with PalmOS. An open platform allows its users to get far more done, and latches them to that platform far more tightly as a result.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that Apple would look at these arguments and reject them — as with the original Macintosh, the NeXT, and the iMac, expandability is not a 1.0 feature for Steve Jobs. Apple also has a significant amount of history competing with its developers (Audion/iTunes, Watson/Sherlock, Konfabulator/Dashboard, and so on), which says to me that they don’t consider a strong developer community a requirement of success. You could also easily look at this decision and compare it to the original Macintosh as an integrated, single-source platform, competing against the PC compatible world, which would also suggest they’re repeating past mistakes. Beyond just Apple being Apple, though, Cingular might very well have pointed to PdaNet as exactly the reason they would want control over applications on the iPhone, and perhaps they found a sympathetic ear with their partner. I easily can see how this came to happen.

It will be interesting to see what happens now. The Macintosh eventually got expansion slots; iTunes did not. Maybe you can look at the iPod and see the lesson learned as, if the design is good enough, Apple can keep control of the whole stack — the Macintosh didn’t try to take too much, it just lost the lickability that strategy requires. I don’t believe you can take the one device everyone carries with them and lock it up as a closed platform, and still succeed. I would rather take two devices, where the one with the antenna is open, than just the one, closed. You can’t line up against every other company in the world and say, we get all of this, without those companies deciding to fight you. It would be smarter for Apple to figure out how they can make others (and not just Cingular) successful on top of what they build, rather than trying to own and control everything. For me that strategy is a deal-breaker, and I think it should be for you, too.

  • http://recyclespace.com Benoit

    I for one will stick to my treo. Cool aint making me buy things anymore. Openness will.

  • eon

    It should be interesting to see the flood of developers jumping on board Apple’s iPhone developer program. It may be better to look at this as a strategy to bring a new level of MacOSX applications to the entire platform. Just as the best of the XBox games get ported over to Windows. I’m sure that those who do develop for the iPhone will get the utmost in support from Apple and as a result, they will be able to program for the MacBook family anything that isn’t accepted for the iPhone. Keep in mind, the computers can be adapted with cellular connectivity and OWC has announced a tablet version of the MB. If Apple licenses the Multi-Touch to OWC, it would make a great developer platform for iPhone and future Apple digital devices.

    Increasing the number of quality apps on a platform can’t be a bad thing. Making sure those apps are as compliant to the UI and takes advantage of the available technologies on the platform also is not a bad thing. Apple hasn’t entered the game console arena, but it appears that they are learning from their sucess as to how to maintain a level of expected quality from the apps that will make their way onto the iPhone.

  • http://www.ecademy.com Julian Bond

    Still waiting for the Smartphone/PDA/PMP that’s as open as the PC.

  • http://www.sencer.de Sencer

    I think it’s kind of funny that so many people are begging apple, when there is the alternative of supporting many really free platforms. Why waste the time and effort in trying to bully Apple?

    People that are ok with sandboxes can do J2ME-Apps, people ok with partly open platforms, can develop for the symbian-platforms. And for people that want truly open and free platforms, there is openmoko (and the FIC Neo1973, Release Feb.2007), which will a completely opensourced smartphone. Not only will you be able to develop 3rd party apps for it, but you can actually go in and enhance/adapt the core apps of the phone. AND you get “the power of apt-get” to manage and update uplications. No need to crack or reverse engineer anything.

    So, again: Why beg and plead the people that are focused on the service providers interests, instead of supporting those people that actually share YOUR goals? A success for openmoko is also the strongest argument you can make for Aple to – at least partly – open up its platform. Think about it.

    Some links:
    http://www.openmoko.com
    http://gizmodo.com/gadgets/smartphones/fics-linuxbased-smartphone-213016.php
    (btw: No, the 1st gen will not yet have multi-touch)

  • Swissfondue

    Apple seems to be positioning the iPhone as a iPod/phone hybrid, not as a smart mobile tablet.

    The “contraption” is still months away from release in the wild. We don’t know if Apple and Cingular agreed to create a cheap data plan especially for the iPhone or not. There are more apps which will be shipping on the iPhone which are not ready yet.

    Apple will work with developpers to allow them to create apps (gleaned from expo feedback), but with whom and to what extent is still open.

    Why don’t we wait until we know, instead of just speculating on what may or not be?

  • http://www.fluxustron.de/ GolfBot

    Sony is a company which thinks like Apple — and the PSP got hacked in an instant, and useful 3rd party apps have been created.
    In that respect I tend to believe that the power of developers who *want* to break into the dungeon and make the iPhone an even better place will be there when needed — if the product is attractive enough (which the iPhone should be after all). Until then, I will stay away from the iPhone, too.

  • http://yamabe.net Brian Yamabe

    Marc, I agree that these are great reasons for an open platform and why many people in this community will stay away. They just aren’t compelling reasons for a consumer. If the thing can’t do what they need it to do out of the box, they’ll return it. Configure what? Download and install what? From who?

    Maybe Jobs is an XPer at heart and is just practicing the principle of YAGNI. Seriously, I am beginning to wonder how much of a deleterious effect the focus on openess and expandability causes the industry as a whole. What user needs are compromised in order to keep systems open? Security. Ease of use. I’m not advocating command-and-control, I just believe that we sometimes forget there is a cost to openess and expandability and fail to calculate that cost in our gadgets and applications as well as our code.

  • http://prashantsarkar.blogspot.com Prashant Sarkar

    I’m waiting for a device from HTC (O2/Dopod/i-mate) that’s as cool as the iPhone and runs Windows Mobile!

  • http://www.weSwear.ws _Jon

    I agree that people may be tempted to hack something to work on the iPhone, I think it will stop with the first Cease & Desist from Apple. Look at how they are reacting from peeps just creating a goofy skin that looks like their phone. They are going after bloggers and journalists who *link* to the item. That’s crazy.

    How long do you think pdaNet would have survived if they had gotten sued by Palm / Handspring / Cingular?

    I think this iPhone may start off well, but if they are going to keep it locked, it deserves to die a death of no support.

    Apparently, Jobs is still thinking with a 1980′s mindset – even after all these years.

  • http://www.brash.com Jason Devitt

    Marc,

    I agree with all four of your points, but I think that the primary issues – and the one that ought to be of concern to all consumers, not just geeks – is that an open platform is *cheaper*, because third-party applications prevent price discrimination by the network provider. Dial-up-networking is the least obvious example. More on this here:
    http://www.brash.com/brash_dot_com/2007/01/watch_steves_de.html

    Jason

  • http://tim.oreilly.com Tim O'Reilly

    Marc — Bravo on an amazing post. Your reasons for why open is better could serve as a manifesto! Add in Jason’s fifth principle, that it’s cheaper for the consumer, and you have, in a nutshell, the driving forces between the rise of open source software and open standards networks like the internet.

    That being said, Apple has achieved amazing things by their completely contrary philosophy. One has to admire Steve Jobs’ single-minded genius and its results. So, as Larry Wall famously said, “There’s more than one way to do it.”

    I’m more afraid of Cingular than of Apple in this combination. Apple at least has created great products. Cingular is a bastion of the mediocre. If Apple is able to do what they no doubt dream of, this will be a very interesting product.

    Boiled down, this face-off is a great test of the thesis that “all of us is smarter than any of us.” It’s true, of course, only when “all of us” means “all of us free to innovate as individuals, not in lockstep.” But getting really meta, “all of us” also includes companies like Apple going their own way, and raising the bar in unique ways, which are then copied and extended by the open community.

  • http://www.techipedia.com Tamar Weinberg

    Excellent points. This is why I’m sticking with my Treo for the long haul, even though Sprint (my provider) seems to be left out of all the latest Treo models that are being developed.

  • Greg

    I agree, the idea of not allowing third party apps is idiotic. Apple DRM is one thing but I think their proprietary attitude is getting to be a bit much. It also appears they won’t even support Java which is the most widely distributed mobile tech on the planet! And now not only Apple but Cingular(only) as well will dictate what apps I use….uggggh…that’s just bad karma. The iPhone may be flashy, but I’ll stick with my Blackberry and high-speed EVDO service for the foreseeable future.

  • http://nivi.com/blog Nivi

    Peter Drucker on why sharing is good: “The market standing to aim at is not the maximum but the optimum… the dominant supplier in a rapidly expanding, especially a new, market is likely to do less well than if it shared that market with one or two other major and competing suppliers… a new market, especially a new major market, tends to expand much more rapidly when there are several suppliers rather than only one. A new market that has only one supplier is likely to become static at 100. It will be limited by the imagination of one supplier who always knows what his product or service cannot or should not be used for. If there are several suppliers, they are likely to uncover and promote markets and end uses the single supplier never dreams of. And the market might grow rapidly to 250. Du Pont seems to have grasped this. In its most successful innovations, Du Pont retains a sole-supplier position only until the product has paid for the original investment. Then Du Pont licenses the innovation and launches competitors deliberately.”

  • http://spamadol.blogspot.com/ Spamadol

    Yes, it is unwise for Apple to not allow developing of third-party applications.

    No doubt iPhone would get a lot of useful applications if Apple will allow it.

    For example, iPhone Microsoft Exchange Connection plugin could become one of most popular among them. And in this case Apple will sell more phones to Windows users just because Windows users will get the feature which they appreciate a lot.

  • http://www.phonething.com Alex Kerr

    To ask a rhetorical question, given the drawbacks to the iPhone, why are we even having this discussion? (ROKR was crap, and got dismissed as such).

    The main answer is of course, the super cool multitouch interface, and the nice big bright screen. Everything else can be found in one form or another on other phones, e.g. in the NSeries from Nokia.

    So, the answer is obvious – given the iPhone, Nokia et al will undoubtedly release a large touch screen NSeries(-type) Symbian based device (sorry I don’t rate Windows Mobile for anything), and hey presto, the arguments above are addressed, and we can all ignore the iPhone.

    Yes, I know about the touchscreen patents, but there is prior art, and I’m sure someone can work around them somehow, even if multitouch is not implemented in exactly the same way.

    Alex

    phonething.com

  • anonymous coward

    if Apple do not open thier iPhone for extension
    it will simply be hacked

    plain and simple

    as any other things in the past that did not open, people did hack them to have more fun than the default stuff

    once you get your hand on the hardware the hardest part is done,
    jobs is right, the software can change

    that’s valid too for hacking that software :D

    Apple should learn from PS, PS2, XBOX, etc.

    they were all closed and supposedly secure (arf),
    they ve been all hacked, modded, whatever..

  • Bob

    You guys hang around developers too much and need to get out into the world. Those of us who like to tinker with gadgets are a very small part of the world, and certainly not the market Apple is aiming at.

    Everyone at my daughter’s high school has an iPod and they compete to buy the latest versions. They now all want iPhones. And I assure you that only 1 or 2 of them think of tinkering with it. The rest are more concerned with colors and ring tones. Apple’s approach is a refreshing change from the tired Open Source mantra that this industry is fixated on. Lets actually build solid gadgets that work easily for the masses instead of toys for engineers.

  • http://www.wesabe.com Marc Hedlund

    Bob, I really don’t care what people at your daughter’s high school want. It’s my money and I get to choose what I want to spend it on. My argument is *not* that the iPhone will be unsuccessful because of this issue — I say that explicitly in the very first paragraph of this post (“the decision will have no appreciable effect on sales — in the short term, at least”). What I care about is what I’m going to spend my money on, and for that, I want an open platform or no thanks. I think that issue matters to the value of the device overall, and I’ve said why above.

    You, and everyone at your daughter’s high school, can make whatever decision you want.

  • http://www.pjtrix.com/blawg/2007/01/18/my-thoughts-on-the-iphone/ PJ Cabrera

    I totally agree, third party apps are going to help the iPhone attract users. The issue is, will this happen in this rev of the hardware/software? All signs poing to “No” as the answer.

    Unless, hacker power wins and people start developing iPhone-specific web portals and web apps, since the iPhone has all the power of Safari inside. This will be similar to the way homebrewers and gadget hackers started developing portals and web apps for the PSP when it was discovered that the WipeOut Pure game had an integrated browser. If people were willing to do that for a browser that sucks as much as the PSP browser does, imagine what they’d do for the Safari-powered iPhone.

    Another possibility: what if, since the iPhone has Mac OS X, one could download Dashboard widgets, and Safari tried to open it. The default behavior for downloading a Dashboard widget with Safari, is that the user is asked if they want to install it. Presto: instantly installed iPhone widgets.

    Just some thoughts.

  • http://www.freetheiphone.com Romain

    For those interested in petitioning to free the iphone from running only Apple software, I have setup a mini-site [ http://www.freetheiphone.com ], to collect signups and hopefully, somehow, to make Steve notice we DO care…

  • http://www.michaelramses.com Ramses

    For people that want truly open and free platforms there is openmoko which will a completely opensourced smartphone.Not only will you be able to develop 3rd party apps for it, but you can actually go in and enhance/adapt the core apps of the phone.