Apple Is Losing Control — and That's a Good Thing

By now, everyone has an opinion on the walled gardens Apple has erected around the iPhone, the iPad and the apps that run on them. The company is simply curating its platform, or it’s micromanaging developers to death. It’s nourishing the most successful computing platform of all time, or it’s suffocating innovation. It’s advancing the computer, or pushing it backwards. So divisive is the debate that it sometimes feels like the culture wars have come to Silicon Valley.

Whether you think Apple’s efforts to control the iPhone OS environment are helping or hurting, its ability to do so will eventually break down. Control never lasts forever — especially on the web, where entropy seems to be a guiding principle. The question is when Apple’s control will start to break down. I think it already has.

But while my reasoning is partly tied to the broader debate about open vs. closed systems, it has much more to do with a development that’s taken place over the past few months, one that even most technophobic Apple customer can grasp immediately: Apple isn’t just refereeing technical violations like private APIs; it’s refereeing morality.

It started when Apple pulled 5,000 apps from the App Store because of sexual content — though an arbiter of porn, even one with the best of intentions, will always end up with all sides angry with them. Apple’s shifting stance on political satire ignited another brush fire. It banned, then allowed Mark Fiore’s iPhone app; now, any aggrieved yahoo with a rejected app can fashion himself as a First Amendment martyr.

I’m willing to accept that Apple is trying doing the right thing for its customers. In one sense, Apple is like Walmart, or any retailer that excludes magazines and books with content it deems too sexual or politically controversial. But Apple is more than just a retailer — it’s the provider of a platform, and a wildly successful one. Apple can control its platform on a small scale, but as success expands that platform domain, the company’s control inevitably breaks down as it starts to create more problems than it solves.

The problems affect developers, content partners and consumers. To avoid having to explain its capricious approval system, Apple has retreated into an opaque cloud of inscrutability, making telepathy a vital skill for successful developers. As publishers large and small bring their content to the iPad, Apple’s murky morality may give them pause — or worse, lead to self-censorship. And curating controversial content in a way that leaves all parties unhappy is hardly a savvy way to market a hot new product to consumers.

Apple has often demonstrated an ability to be flexible. In January, it eased some controls on the app approval process in an effort to speed it up. It recently allowed Opera Mini into the App Store, an exception to its rule that third-party apps not compete with its native offerings. And iPhone OS 4 will finally concede to longstanding calls for the iPhone to multitask third-party apps.

So the company is likely to reassess its control-freak tendencies as well. It has three choices: One, hold to the status quo; two, curate its platform, but add a set of clear guidelines as to what’s allowed and what isn’t, or maybe a curtained-off section for controversial apps; or three, adopt an open environment where apps are rejected only on technical considerations. The first will only add to confusion. The second might work if the guidelines are explicit enough. The third is the simplest, but involves giving up a lot of control.

My guess is Apple will go for option No. 3. Not right away, but in increments. In the early days of the web, ISPs faced a similar choice and decided not to control what customers could read. Apple will always favor a closed architecture that lets it offer a web experience on its terms. But in time, even its curated experience will look more more like the messy reality we see on the web today.

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Image courtesy of Flickr user herwings.