How Steve Jobs Plans to Eat Firefox (and why I'm not getting an iPhone)

By chromatic
July 30, 2008 | Comments: 12

Steve Jobs is craftier than I gave him credit for.

Remember Steve Jobs Wants to Eat Firefox! from last year? I thought he might be crazy, or playing the CEO chest-thumping game he and Larry Ellison have raised to a twisted art. Now I realize I hadn't seen his strategy at all.

Shashwat Parhi almost had it right in the comments. The iPhone was worth delaying Leopard for several months (and that giant sucking sound you heard from Cupertino in early 2007 was the best developers leaving the Leopard team for the iPhone team) not because phones are cool and tactile feedback is less important than the shiny, but because the mobile Internet is Steve's best new shot at taking over the world. Safari won't replace IE or Firefox on the desktop, but Apple's strong bet is that the Internet in your pocket will replace your desktop, at least for certain uses.

Sure, Windows CE has a few phones, but who cares about Windows CE? The apps aren't broadly compatible and the familiar Windows interface isn't compelling on a mobile device.

The iPod Touch grabbed my attention when O'Reilly intern Dylan Field showed off the NY Times iPhone app. It's very shiny. As tempting as it was to entertain the fantasy of learning Objective-C and producing a truly Internet-aware application that's more than JavaScript and the DOM jammed together over HTTP, my sense of pragmatism took over four hours later. I could spend a few weeks writing a program that only a few people could use, on a locked down device running a locked down service -- or I could continue to work on software free for anyone to use, not tied to a specific hardware platform or service.

Apple has the right to make this device and to bundle it with AT&T's service. The market is free. People are free to choose the device as well. I have little interest in participating in a market that disempowers users to take control of their own computing experiences. (Please spare me the argument that you love the UI or that it does exactly what you want to do. That's fine. It doesn't do what I want to do. Shouldn't that be fine too?)

I don't believe all of the arguments I've heard for restricting the software you can run on the iPhone, however. Either viruses and malware aren't really the reason to vet every app for $99, or Snow Leopard will only install software from its own store. Surely the point of a mobile Internet device is to have the kind of always-available, general purpose computing connectivity that a notebook PC offers these days.

It's a nice device, and the demo apps Dylan showed me are very tempting. Yet I've spent too long recovering from the bad old days of vendor and service lock-in to let a shiny touch screen and rounded corners tempt me to giving back control to yet another software/hardware/service vendor combination. It'd be a shame to have invested so much in freeing servers and desktops to lose all of that ground for new technologies and opportunities. Here's to a freer future from the new Nokia, Moblin, OpenMoko, and (wait and see) Android.


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12 Comments

Fascinating post, and a dilemma I have been facing myself in considering an iPhone.

Especially of late, Apple's attitude has really thrown up a red flag for me, and I'm a die-hard Mac user. Interested to see how it all plays out ...

Personally, I don't really use my iPhone for web browsing unless it's absolutely necessary. Most web sites are far two heavy for the pipes (I have a 2g phone and 3g is not supported in my primary location) and are not designed to be usable by the mobile form factor. I think the web as a whole needs to shift towards mobile browsing in order for such platforms to really be effective cloud devices. Frankly, I want more local caching and cloudless apps on my iPhone (like a local wikipedia that updates occassionally with the cloud version).

I completely agree that vendor lockdown is deplorable, but in the case of the iPhone, I believe it can't last. All it takes is one killer app that requires some functionality that Steve won't sign off on. Everyone will jailbreak and the closed system will be dead. With so many developers enamored with the device, I think such an app will come sooner than later.

I bought an iPhone for precisely the opposite reason - it's a whole lot better than how Verizon was working. A couple of years back, I had a PowerBook G4 that had bluetooth and I had a Motorola bluetooth phone that had the capacity to use the data profile. Great, I thought, but it didn't work. I asked a Verizon store rep about it - they said nonchalantly that they disabled that feature because they couldn't charge for it.

While I think you're right in that Apple is still closed from the completely open mobile computing device, it is quite a bit more open, especially with the advent of the app store. Then you can also jailbreak the thing, which opens up all sorts of possibilities - and yes if you wait about a week after any software update from Apple, you're safe to jailbreak.

I just like the fact that a titan from another industry and with a different perspective has the clout and the customers to make the wireless industry change - they at least have their foot in the door. Android and others are using that leverage and I'm excited for further developments.

Really interesting post; I hadn't considered this side of the argument. You're right -- the freedom and creativity borne from open source APIs have given us much to appreciate, some of it shiny, some of it workaday; and re-adding strictures, whether they come from Apple or MS makes no difference, they're probably not worth it. When the tech hype machine really gets going (see my post comparing it to Life of Brian at http://bit.ly/iPhone_3G_LoB)
it's easy to lose perspective; so thanks for the insight. Will keep it in mind as this progresses.

Yes, Android could be quite interesting. Not so sure about Nokia. They really showed a very cynical attitude to Open Source with their Internet Tablets and I wouldn't trust them one inch on the S60 thing.

As for Apple, I agree - why bother? ... right now, anyway.

Arguing you need freedom in your life? Freedom to dream and ship your dream. No problem with that.

But, there are at least 2 billion people on the planet who just want to make a ^$%&^$&$ call; We want to use a reliable and easy to use device. We're happy to have Apple do its best guarding it against malware or being crash prone.

And guess what? We get music, movies, radio, and an app library soon to be 20,000 strong. What's not to like?

It's a little like cars. You don't get to drive 100 mph on our streets.

Freedom restricted stinks, doesn't it?

@pk, I think you're presenting a false dilemma. There are no technical reasons there can't be a free-and-open phone which is reliable, easy to use, malware and crash-proof, which supports music, movies, radio, and an app library.

Ask yourself this: are there technical reasons why the iPhone, which includes a microphone, speakers, and WiFi hardware as well as software access to all three can't have a VoIP client? If not, do you think there will ever be one on the Apple Store?

Freedom restricted does indeed stink.

Interesting take.

However, the problem with all of the open source substitutes you supplied are way behind the curve in development. Android is nifty, but even with Google behind it, Android looks like a different CE interface. Even the touch screen demonstration of Android required the user to use external buttons to accomplish zooming tasks that are currently accomplished on the touch screen on the iPhone.

Next, you don't like the idea of being locked in. While I can appreciate the philosophy behind open source software, it does not really pan out in th market place. (Linux is still to gain any market share with the average user) The other problem with Open Source on a mobile device, is that each hardware platform will still pare down the software to work completely with their hardware platform. Therefore, the average user will lose things if they move to a different hardware platform.

At least with the iPhone, the average user can be relatively confident that their software will work the way they expect it to work. Even if a phone is open source, you will still find that it is locked to the original carrier, and some software you are accustomed to working with one carrier are not going to work if you switch carriers.

Therefore, I think your open source software falls apart. By the way, I use a Blackberry.

:)

I had the 8 Gig I-Phone and I just purchased the 16 Gig 3G I-Phone. I Love it! Many of the apps are free and the rest are quite reasonable. Perhaps you need to see what the developers did with the freedom Mac gave them!

@chromatic

"I think you're presenting a false dilemma. There are no technical reasons there can't be a free-and-open phone which is reliable, easy to use, malware and crash-proof, which supports music, movies, radio, and an app library."

I've used a lot of open source software, and in my experience, he's not presenting a false dilemma. Those people I know who haven't switched away from a completely free software ecosystem are, quite honestly, so used to the problems those systems have that they come to see them as natural or expected. Something not working doesn't particularly bother them; in fact, they sort of like it because it's a challenge to figure out what went wrong and fix it.

The problem is not technical, though, you're right about that; it's cultural. For many developers in the free software world, needs like "reliable, easy to use, malware and crash-proof" are secondary needs - the primary is keeping the ecosystem free.

There are some high quality OSS apps out there, don't get me wrong, but I think they're more the exception rather than the rule. When I hit a bug with VMWare that caused a hard quit, for example, my Windows VM restarted fine, but my Ubuntu VM's HDD became corrupted and I needed to do a wipe and reinstall, which ate hours of my time. I did lose some data, though I got most stuff back. (fsck tried to fix the problems, but couldn't completely.) The core components of Linux distros have been getting developed and refined for over a decade now, but still stuff like this happens quite easily. I would be far more upset if something like this happened on my phone.

And while it's true that Apple does exert some control over apps on the app store, to argue that they don't do any testing like they say is pure speculation. If you look at the WebKit project (which is almost completely open source), they are heavily into automated testing so I wouldn't be surprised if each iPhone app has a test suite run on it to make sure that at least in basic operation it behaves properly. It's clear to me after using many of Apple's products that they take software quality and user experience very seriously, and they invest in strategies for efficient and automated software testing. So the idea that they're actually testing apps going on the app store doesn't strike me as a bogus argument at all. OSS could really take a few notes on automated testing and ensuring a quality user experience, in fact.

Anyway, looking forward to the free software phone that beats the iPhone. Since iPhone people are attracted to anything shiny, you should just need to do some rounded rectangles and glossy effects to have a phone that is every bit its equal, right? :)

@B. Mac, I repeat: where's that VoIP client? My five year old nephew gets to pick out the clothes he wears every day, but he doesn't have the autonomy of an adult.

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