Geeks and enthusiasts wearing WordPress t-shirts, using laptops covered in Data Portability, Microformats and RSS stickers lined up enthusiastically on Friday to purchase a device that is completely proprietary, controlled and wrapped in DRM. The irony was lost on some as they ran home, docked their new devices into a proprietary media player and downloaded closed source applications wrapped in DRM.
I am referring to the new iPhone – and the new Apple iPhone SDK that allows developers to build ‘native’ applications. The announcement was greeted with a web-wide standing ovation, especially from the developer community. The same community who demand all from Microsoft, feel gifted and special when Apple give them an inch of rope. When Microsoft introduced DRM into Media Player it was bad bad bad – and it wasn’t even mandatory, it simply allowed content owners a way to distribute and sell content from anywhere.
Apple has wrapped the iPhone SDK in enough licensing, security controls and right management that it would make the Microsoft Active Desktop team blush. The phone and platform that is certain to soon take second spot behind Symbian in the smart phone market is also the most restricted and closed. Applications can only be installed from a single source, iTunes, and open source applications and distribution is near impossible. How do you install an iPhone application without iTunes? Where are the community advocates arguing for a standard interface, openess and free code?
What is more worrying is what the next move could be. Now that there is an AppStore with applications in iTunes, why wouldn’t Apple move next to distribute all applications through iTunes – both desktop and mobile? There is no reason for them not to – the response to AppStore has been so enthusiastic that it is almost assured that you will start seeing desktop apps distributed in the same way. As soon as users are ground into looking at everything through iTunes, distribution of software in the traditional manner would be near impossible. Apple would become the gatekeeper, and both developers and users will enthusiastically pay the toll in exchange for pretty devices with pretty applications.
Apple has a very strong following in the open source community, and I can no longer understand it nor justify my own support (I am writing this on a Macbook). They built OS X on FreeBSD (a project I have enthusiastically supported, contributed to and been a user of for 10 years or more), they built Safari on KHTML, and are now using libraries such as SproutCore in MobileMe. They have taken open source and everything it built and leveraged it to get to market faster – yet they have now, with iTunes and the new SDK, built a layer on top of it that excludes others. For Apple, open source is great when it furthers their own goals, but not when using it with Apple software where it may further the goals of others.
The solution is simple. If you truly believe in open standards, open source and the good that it has created, then don’t accept it. The spirit of open source was about building on the work of others in a transparent fashion, as the gains further the common good of all. Despite not taking over the desktop market, the philosophy and its resultants have destroyed the old enterprise market and many others. Open source and standards keep Microsoft and other big companies on their toes, the movement as a whole and the philosophy is very real. The solution isn’t to adopt new licenses to try and prevent this, as it results in the mess that is GPL v 3.
It should be very possible to attach a simple BSD license to code, and if a large company utilizes the effort from others in a way that is unacceptable – the market should be able to sort that out, we simply wont buy it. The community needs to do more than just wear their support for openess and standards on their sleeves (and on their laptops). The problem with Apple is that the blind demand is driven by a distorted reality, so those same developers who poured thousands of hours into the BSD kernel now turn around and purchase an iPhone running that code, but it is now tied up in DRM, licenses and restrictions placed there by others.