Recently, Apple have started to lock the iPhones of people who have either unlocked their devices without first buying a proper contract with AT&T, or even more interesting, those who have installed custom programs and hacks to extend the iPhones capabilities. Despite the public pleading Apple to open up the iPhone and release a real SDK (as opposed to the current web SDK that allows developers to deliver their apps through iPhone’s inbuilt Safari web browser) to help developers make applications for the iPhone, Apple is still firmly resisting. The reasons they have given feel inadequate—will it really compromise the security of the device? Surely Apple has everything to gain from opening up the iPhone and allowing thousands of developers to make their own apps for it?
I think there is a deeper and a more ideological reason behind Apple’s decision. The reason Apple is keeping strict control over their device is because they wish to ensure it does its core functions well. Let me explain. As digital devices get smaller, such as laptops and mobile phones, we’re seeing more and more computing power in smaller and smaller devices. We now have Blackberries capable of surfing the net, writing emails, making Excel spreadsheets, putting together presentations, taking pictures etc. etc.—these new ’smartphones’ have so many features I don’t even know what they all are. There is a tendency to think that in the future, we’ll all have powerful computers in our pockets that can do everything we want. I believe this is a misconception.
The way I see it, when we call these devices mini-computers, we tend overestimate their functions. The current understanding of the word computer is a ‘personal computer’—something sitting on your desk that you can use to do your office work, play games, browse the Web and communicate. A lot of these functions are now present in the current line of smartphones—but this insn’t really true. The function may be there on paper, but how useful is it really? Do you really want to crunch numbers in an Excel spreadsheet on your Blackberry? Do you really want to write an essay on your iPhone? Can you really do your office work on these things? The answer of course is no—you cannot, it just isn’t suitable for everything. For typing out large documents, for processing a lot of data (when more screen real estate is required), for design work, for play, for watching movies and for many other functions, the tiny keyboard and screen of the smartphone is far from ideal. The smartphone is a device that can do some things well. When it tries to do everything, it just doesn’t get it all right.
Apple understands this very well. Adding features will only result in feature bloat. When you do add features, you have to ensure they are meaningful and can actually do their thing to the fullest. If you look at the iPhone, Apple really only have three features, which they explicitly described: 1. a phone, 2. an iPod and 3. an Internet communicator. The phone is obvious, you want to make calls on this thing, and it does it well enough. The iPod is obvious as well—music on the go works, and Apple have perfected the portable music player with their line of iPods. The final feature isn’t really going to work to its fullest, but Apple have made sure it’s the best of its breed—email and Web browsing. Again, Apple didn’t include anything else like iChat, they just included email and Web browsing, and they made sure those features were polished enough to work. The iPhone is thus not a computer in your pocket—the iPhone is three devices in one, and not a feature more.
What this means is that the iPhone is a way for you to make phone calls, listen to music on the go and even surf the Web and check your email. It isn’t really meant to be a lot more than that—and it certainly isn’t meant to replace your computer. In the future, we won’t have one single device in our pockets that will do everything you want, we’ll have several focused devices that do their chosen functions to the fullest. The small screen and keyboard mean that devices like phones cannot be used to do any real work, or to fully enjoy games and movies—but that’s OK, we have personal computers for that. By doing one or two things right, the function is fully satisfied and the user is happy. By trying to do everything, the device becomes a feature bloat and complicated to use. Its function loses focus—you no longer start to think of it as just a “phone” for example, but a mini computer, without clear boundaries or uses.
Apple wish to retain focus. They want their users to be satisfied, and they want their phone to be as easy to use as possible. All this means they must cut down on features and only focus on the things the device can do best. I may be wrong about this, but I understand this as Apple’s ideology, and the reason why they are currently keeping their device under lock. They explicitly don’t wish for people to add many new functions to their phone for fear of feature bloat, loss of a focused perception of its functions, needless complication if too many new things are added—and maybe even because they want to add more apps to the iPhone in the future, and so would like to do it themselves in a controlled product update (rather than a free app people can grab online). It’s not 100% clear whether they are right, but I personally think this strategy is sound and believe Apple are doing the right thing because of the reasons I’ve outlined.