Why I Won't Buy an iPhone

Apple has abandoned its founding ethos of creativity and innovation by hanging up on third-party software developers

I don't own an iPhone, and I don't think I ever will. That may come as a surprise to anyone acquainted with my long history of owning and liking Apple (AAPL) products.

It's not that I don't think it's an extraordinary device (BusinessWeek.com, 7/3/07). Having tried it, I think it represents a fundamental step forward in what a mobile phone can be. And it sure looks like it's going to be imitated six ways to Sunday.

But what I can't take is how Apple is keeping the iPhone from evolving in a manner consistent with its corporate heritage. Over the years I've owned many wireless devices, including a Treo (PALM), three or four BlackBerrys (RIMM), and tested my share of phones running Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Mobile and the Symbian OS, majority owned by Nokia (NOK).

Web Apps Only

In almost every case, I've had an important option I wouldn't get on the iPhone: installing third-party software. What's so big about that? Sometimes the package of software installed on the phone simply isn't very good. My BlackBerry, for instance, comes with an instant messaging program I found lacking, so I installed an excellent alternative called JiveTalk. On the BlackBerry, it's a dedicated application, installed directly on the device via a cellular download.

A version works on the iPhone, but only through the phone's Web browser—rather than the phone itself. Good luck using JiveTalk when its Web site is hammered by thousands of users at once. In fact, the only way to use an outside application of any kind on the iPhone is via the Web browser. If you're a software developer and want to create some software that runs after being installed directly on the iPhone itself, you're officially out of luck. Unofficially, you can only install your application after jumping through some technical hoops that Apple says run the risk of voiding your warranty, damaging the phone, and generally wreaking untold havoc.

Is the iPhone that Fragile?

Why all the sturm und drang? Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs will tell you opening the device could leave the network vulnerable. Carriers such as AT&T (T), Apple's U.S. iPhone provider, "don't want to see their West Coast network go down because some application messed up," he told Newsweek in January.

Hogwash, I say. Like many BlackBerry users, I've installed and removed scores of applications from my BlackBerry over the years, and never once heard a peep from T-Mobile (DT) about bringing down its network. No one has yet been able to explain to me how even the most ill-designed software could conceivably do such harm to the wireless network.

And really, is the iPhone so delicate that one nasty application damages its software permanently? I thought the device runs Mac OS X. If you believe Apple's marketing, the operating system is rock solid, hard to break, easy as pie to use, and so on. One bad application can do all that damage? The iPhone itself isn't just a phone or an iPod. It's really a mobile computer. Apparently one so powerful that software developers are forbidden to do anything for it, short of cute little Web-based applications, yet so sensitive that it's easy to screw up. That's one way to inspire confidence in a product.

Putting Profit Before Progress

Historically Apple's Macintosh computers have remained relevant because of the ongoing efforts of dedicated, enthusiastic software developers who continued to build great applications even when the size of the Mac-using community was dwindling. Shutting developers out of its latest, greatest accomplishment is a lousy thing to do.

But then again, it's not like Apple's other recent blockbuster products, those of the iPod variety, are terribly open to software developers either. Apple controls every bit of software that goes into the iPod. The games available from the iTunes online music store, for instance, are Apple-approved. If I wanted to build one, I couldn't just release it to the world like I would for the Mac or PC. I would have to go through Apple. The same set of circumstances appears to be true for the iPhone. Apple has built a stone wall around it, preventing throngs of independent software developers from pushing the device to reach its full potential. If the only way to peddle my wares is through the iTunes store, the way iPod games are now, then so be it. But why not open it up?

Software developers are part of what makes the Mac the strong platform it is. But on the iPhone they're just troublemakers (BusinessWeek.com, 8/2/07). Troublemakers who might, in the worse case, cost Apple and its hand-picked partners money. And that's why Jobs has promised to stop them. For starters, they may unlock the phone, enabling it to be used on any network, not just that of AT&T. Beyond that, they'll create applications that could rankle any number of other Apple partners.

Build an app to create your own ringtones out of your own collection of MP3 music files, and you go against Apple's approved method of paying a fee—99¢ on top of the 99¢ you paid for the song originally—to make one on iTunes, thereby costing Apple and the record labels extra cash. Create your own method of downloading music or video via Wi-Fi, and you go against the approved method of buying an iTunes song via Wi-Fi at Starbucks (SBUX). Sure, it's innovative—no other online music service has a similar feature—but must there be only one way to make the iPhone interesting to own? Do commercial partnerships and contractual entanglements have to come before creativity and home-brewed innovation?

Inconsistent with Apple's Branding

Wasn't Apple itself the creation of two guys in garage with a knack for making interesting ideas into real things? So why punish the people who try to create something interesting, threatening them with the prospect of an inoperative phone?

Apple insiders argue privately that the iPhone is a new device. In time, they say, maybe the development policy could change, though none say definitively that it ever will.

Until that happens, the company that styles itself as the technology supplier of choice for creative people with great ideas is insisting that to own its products is to accept a defined orthodoxy where there's only one acceptable way to do things. That doesn't sound like the Apple I know. So I'm not going to buy an iPhone. And until Apple commits to changing this ridiculous policy, I don't think you should either.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.