The Closed Apple iPhone And The Quest For The Killer App

January 13, 2007

Hmmm, so the Apple iPhone criticism continues, this time specifically about the closed development nature of the product. It’s is a totally valid point, although my angle is a bit different about the dangers of this approach.

First, from the user’s point of view (not developer’s), I feel Apple actually does embrace the Web 2.0 concept of user-created-content. They’ve done wonders providing average users powerful, yet easy to use tools to unleash their inner creativity. The whole iLife suite of iPhoto, iMovie, and Garageband was created for the very intent of allowing average folks to put together their digital content to use in new and interesting ways (and in turn, providing YouTube with plenty of funny videos). So I politely disagree with Nick Carr when talks about how the Apple is possibly anti-Web 2.0 – I don’t see it that way at all (once again, Rex Hammock is worth a read, regarding this point).

But the anti-open complaint does make sense when coming from a developer’s point of view. And a little Apple history is in order – specifically the concept of the “killer app”. The original Macintosh was a dud on arrival until Aldus came up with PageMaker in 1985, enabling the desktop publishing revolution. Apple owes its life to that program – which may possibly irk a control-loving visionary who shall remain nameless.

It may be subconsciously insulting for Apple, a company that creates insanely great hardware and a cool operating system, to owe its life to independent developers for those key, critical “killer apps” that can either make or break their system (as how Nintendo would be without Miyamoto developing Zelda and Mario games). The most extreme explanation of “why” might lie in how Microsoft, a tiny PC software company that also wrote some Apple programs, ended up rulers of the industry, nearly putting Apple out of business in the nineties.

These strange psychologies (lack of ownership of the “killer app”) might explain why one priority of Apple, since the return of Steve Jobs, has been either copying or buying programs to build up its iLife suite and other aspects of OS X. Sherlock was clearly inspired by Watson. Dashboard, an imitation of Konfabulator. The album cover flipping CoverFlow was bought and incorprated into iTunes (and now the iPhone).

But that’s only the small stuff. iTunes was SoundJam, GarageBand was developed by Emagic, and most cynically, the biggest Apple software purchase of all in OS X itself, from NeXT computer (and naturally, bringing Jobs back to the fold).

This is not to discount the huge amount of software that Apple does develop – just to point out how Apple wants to control the public image that all this stuff coming from Apple and is being developed completely in-house – which is certainly not the case.

So with the iPhone, Apple and Jobs believe Apple can finallly come up with the “killer app” themselves. They’re trying, and maybe distracting us, with the declaration that making phone calls is the “killer app” of the iPhone, and this has been solved. But this certainly isn’t a sure thing. And seeing how Apple has depended on acquisitions to flesh out its software in the past, it may not be a safe bet to make.

My real worry about the iPhone closed system, is that Apple will discourage developers, which will in turn leave Apple users with less software (or leave Apple with less software to buy or be “inspired” by), making the platform over-reliant on Apple’s own internal software development, which in the end, could leave Apple users with an inferior product. It’s a long chain of events that doesn’t seem very likely right now, with Apple the technology-media darling, but it’s something to think about.