The iPhone's Peephole

Daring Fireball’s John Gruber wrote what I thought was a good response to my post about Apple’s App Store sexy app policy. While I noted that one of the reasons Apple’s policy was silly was because each iPhone contains two apps, iTunes and Safari (both made by Apple), that grant users access to content much worse than the kind of stuff now being banned from the App Store, he comes back to say that maybe the idea isn’t to remove this content from the iPhone itself, but rather just from the actual App Store.

My first reaction to this was the humorous thought that both iTunes and Safari would be banned from the App Store had they not been included by default on every iPhone. But that actually lead to a more interesting thought that a few other posts around the web back up today: Safari is the iPhone’s peephole.

What I mean is that Apple very tightly controls nearly every aspect of the iPhone (and really, all products). While they undoubtedly have both selfish (app revenues) and unselfish (protection) reasons for doing this, this type of suffocating control should be enough to make users walk away. But it’s not. And a big reason may be Safari.

Think about it: you can’t have porn on your iPhone — but actually, you can. You just have to go through Safari. You can’t have Google Voice on your iPhone — but actually, you can. You just have to go through Safari. Other Google Apps? Same thing.

Sure, it’s not as easy or as nice as if there were a native app experience, but it’s doable. And as HTML5 continues to mature, it will be more and more doable. In fact, over the past few months I’ve encountered a number of web apps on the iPhone that are increasingly impressive. One is the Google Buzz app, which is better than Google Buzz on the desktop because it uses HTML5 to access your location through your phone.

Remember, when the iPhone first launched in 2007, no native third-party apps were allowed. All Apple said at the time was that if you wanted to make an app, it had to be a web app. The problem was that the HTML5 was basically non-existant at the time, and the older HTML/JavaScript/CSS combination simply wasn’t ideal for developers or users. So Apple shuffled (though native apps may have been the plan all along, who knows), and made third-party native apps the norm with the launch of the iPhone SDK.

Unfortunately, as we’ve all become well aware, there’s a price for this native development: you have to play by Apple’s rules. But, at the same time, Apple never said you still couldn’t work outside the App Store ecosystem and make any sort of web app you desired. Again, essentially, they made Safari a loophole — or, as I’ve been calling it, a peephole.

Today, Gruber elaborated on this a bit buried in his post about Adobe Flash. Here’s the key part:

The best counter-argument is perhaps that, given Apple’s desire for control, they’re always going to prefer their wholly owned proprietary platforms — native iPhone and Mac apps — over the web, and will eventually come to see the web as a threat. I don’t think Apple sees it that way, though. There is always going to be a lowest common denominator platform. That used to be Windows. Now it’s the web. Apple doesn’t build lowest common denominator platforms. Before, when Windows was the LCD, Apple was in a hard place because they were locked out of that platform: their platform was at odds with it. Now, with the web as the LCD, Apple has it both ways: their platforms gracefully coexist with it. Apple isn’t a web company, but the web might be the best thing that ever happened to them.

So with the web, Apple is giving both developers and users a way to still operate outside the system. And again, that method will keep improving as HTML5 does.

In fact, I’m surprised that Apple doesn’t play this up more in response to the criticisms of the App Store. If I were them, I’d simply say something like, “We made the App Store to provide our customers with the best guaranteed experience on their device. If you’d like an app that we don’t allow, that’s fine, you’ll just have to access it through the web on the device.”

The first part essentially is their line, but the second part they probably won’t say because then they’ll worry customers will start associating the web apps with Apple itself. But again, that was the initial idea behind the first iPhone, so if they thought it was going to work at one time, they should be comfortable with it now.

Another post today on Silicon Alley Insider notes that Apple is stacking the deck against its rivals like Amazon for digital goods because you can’t buy them within native iPhone (and soon iPad) apps. For example, with the Amazon Kindle app, you have to go to the web to purchase a new e-book.

But again, it’s not that you flat out cannot buy the book, you just have to go to the web to do it. And you can do that on the iPhone, through Safari. It’s a little more complicated, but it’s manageable.

Ideally, would Apple like to all the most popular web apps ported over to native apps available in the App Store? Provided they adhere to their guidelines, of course. At the same time, are they ever going to remove Safari from the iPhone and make all developers do native apps? No way. It would be suicide to do so. And Apple must know that.

You cannot remove the safety net just because you think not falling is better than falling.

Instead, Apple will focus on making a platform for developers that allows them to create a better tailored experience for users, provided they follow their rules. We see this with apps like Facebook, Pandora, and a number of Twitter apps. Each is better than their respective web app (well, except that you can’t run Pandora in the background, but that may change — soon). And each are among the most popular apps on the device.

Meanwhile, I’m using Google Voice, Buzz, and Gmail on my phone — I’m just using them through Safari. I thought it would bug me, but it really doesn’t because HTML5 is getting so good.

Is Apple still hypocritical in not allowing some sexy apps but allowing others? Yes. And it’s particularly bad because they initially didn’t allow them, then they did, now they’ve taken them away again. And it’s sad that this is destroying some businesses (no matter what you think of the content). But you still could get this content through the web using Safari. It sucks for the developers that they can’t as easily charge for it, but end users obviously won’t care about that. And those are the people buying iPhones.

The iPhone may be a closed door, but there is a peephole, Safari. And if you can’t find what you’re looking for on the device, you might want to look through it.

[photo: flickr/wfyurasko]