iPhone Apps: More Locked Down Than You Think

So Steve Jobs revealed in the WSJ that there is in fact a (to this point hidden) mechanism in the iPhone that allows Apple to remove, directly from a given iPhone, any code they don't like. Sure, users - and cellular networks - need to be protected from fraud and hackers. But shouldn't Apple have documented this "feature"? And what else might in there?

First of all, I applaud Apple for building in a tool that really could enhance the integrity of the product and the networks it runs on. This isn't that different from a core capability in many mobile device management products, which can perform similar editing of functionality and even "zap" a lost or missing handset to prevent compromised data and undue service changes. Imagine if Microsoft had included a "system verification" function in Windows, something I've often wished for.

On the other hand, I'm also a big fan of open systems platforms. It's my damn phone (or computer); I'm paying for it; I get to decide what I do with it, thank you very much, and I'll also thank you, Mr. or Ms. handset manufacturer and Mr. or Ms. carrier to keep your grubby little mitts off of it. If your network is so insecure as to invite hacking, then fix it. If you don't like the apps I run, tough. If you think you can lock down my platform without my consent, then think again. How long did it take to crack copy protection on DVDs? What do you think the above-average IQs at Black Hat and DEFCON were talking about earlier this month? I am, as always, against fraud and theft, but restricting the legal activities of end-users is unacceptable. And that is a possibility given a hidden capability like the one in the iPhone.

In the final analysis, however, I don't think this problem is all that big a deal. iPhones will mostly appeal to those looking for the wall-garden experience - just make it work; don't bother me with the details. The Mac pioneered this approach and has mostly pulled it off. Don't expect too many complaints. But this small-scale fascism (beyond the do-it-our-way-or-else-and-give-us-30%-off-the-top procedure for loading software on the iPhone to begin with) opens the door to competitors who are less paternalistic. The iPhone really will sell 25 million units worldwide over the next year, but that's on the order of 2% of total handset sales. In the long run, it will be various flavors of LINUX that dominate handset platforms, and few of those vendors or the carriers that provide service will attempt what amounts to the technological equivalent of the nanny state - or worse. Competition will ultimately force Apple to do the right thing, or they'll have to be content with 2% market share.

In the meantime, repeat after me: Lord Steven is my master, and, yea, though I payeth for my iPhone, it is he and ATTus that doth really own it, and I shall computeth only that which they so deemeth acceptable, on earth as it is in Cupertino, pax iPhono, amen.

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