Arik Hesseldahl has an interesting piece in Business Week about Apple’s control of the iPhone App approval process in which he asks: “Is a smartphone gatekeeper needed?” Plenty of people don’t think so and have raised a stink about Apple trying to play that role for the iPhone. It certainly could be true, as some critics suggest, that Apple is being too heavy-handed on occasion when rejecting apps, but it’s always easy for those of us on the outside of the process to think that. Hesseldahl notes that:
it’s tempting to consider the implications of a less hands-on approach, as is the case with Macs, Microsoft (MSFT) Windows PCs, or other smartphones, including those running the Google (GOOG)-backed Android operating system. The software market for personal computing has existed in this way for nearly three decades, and while there have certainly been some problems along the way, I’d argue that overall we’re better off without Microsoft or Apple or some other organization approving software applications before they’re released to the market. PC users have learned to be careful about what they put on their computers through unhappy trial and error.
But he also notes that there is another side to the story:
My hunch is that greater vigilance is needed with smartphones, in part because they’re a relatively recent phenomenon. The iPhone has been on the market only 28 months. Users take them everywhere and are quickly inserting them into daily life in ways the personal computer never could have fit. Malware on smartphones could do significantly more damage than malware on a PC. Imagine a nasty application that records every word you speak—both on and off the phone—without your knowledge, and then e-mails the audio to a stranger. Or picture one that surreptitiously tracks your movements and sends them to a stalker.
Hesseldahl interviewed Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice-president for worldwide product marketing, for his piece and Schiller confirmed that malware [think iPhone worms] and and other safety & security concerns topped the list of problems that Apple was trying to head-off by managing the applications process. There’s also various types of illegal content that Apple has to contend with.
Anyway, my only interest in bringing this to everyone’s attention is because I have spent the last few years debating a growing crop of academics (Zittrain, Lessig, Wu) and policy shops (Public Knowledge, Free Press, etc) who suggest that proprietary devices and app stores constitute the revival of online “walled gardens” from the early Internet era (like AOL, Prodigy & CompuServe). Personally, I don’t see any solid evidence that Apple’s model is indicative of a mass trend toward online “gatekeepers.” As Hesseldahl points out, there’s still plenty of other devices and stores out there from which to choose. Moreover, as I pointed out in my first review of Zittrain’s book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, we should be thankful that we have a range of device and store options to choose from. That’s a great thing. If you don’t like Apple’s style, then don’t get an iPhone. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t. Vote with your pocketbooks, people!