Apple Knows Best

Since the iPhone’s release, hackers have been pecking away to try to unlock the power of Apple’s little portable computer. iPhones could be fake activated (so you can use the Wifi capabilities and iPod features), homebrew and custom applications can be installed, and your iPhone can be “unlocked” to allow it to work with other SIM cards. now, everyone is aware of Apple’s latest iPhone firmware update and what it does to hacked or unlocked iPhones. If your iPhone is hacked and you throw down update 1.1.1, your hacks and installed applications will no longer work. If your phone is unlocked and using another carrier, it apparently wreaks havoc.

The motivation for targeting unlocked iPhones is pretty straightforward: Apple shares service revenue with AT&T and is contractually obligated to keep other carriers off the iPhone.

The motivation behind breaking the hacking/custom apps on the iPhone is not so clear. Also, it’s pissed a lot of people off. Gizmodo is not recommending that people purchase the iPhone. So the question begs to be asked: why would Apple break applications that make the iPhone more valuable to its customers?

I see two possible answers to the above question:

  1. Apple didn’t intentionally try to break anything. I don’t know a lot about the software cycle process for portable devices, but I’m guessing its not a cakewalk. Unlike computers, the tolerance level for a phone crashing or not functioning properly is extremely low. Apple has enough to worry about in dealing with software updates. They simply can’t commit resources to make certain the iPhone will continue to support a constantly changing software ecosystem that is outside of their control.
  2. Apple seeks to maintain total control of the iPhone experience. The iPhone is an inspiring piece of technology. It’s powerful, intuitive and is the product of enormous control exerted over the software and hardware design process. You can’t create an experience that good without exerting that kind of control. If Apple chose to, even passively, allow the homebrew community to flourish, the result would be less control in Apple’s hands.

Reason 2 is intriguing to me. In many ways, it highlights a rarely cited reality in design: most people aren’t good at it. The iPhone is not the product of a democratic process. It’s the outcome of the labors of a team of extremely talented designers, architects and developers.

If you stop and look at Apple’s development and design guidelines for OSX, the need for control is there as well. Just about every OSX application shares a common aesthetic and flow. Apple aggressively enforces and recommends design “guidelines.”

So stated in a less than friendly manner: Apple doesn’t want other people mucking up their stuff. “Thanks, but no thanks” is the message. Taken to its end, this is about their lack of faith in democracy. Apple believes Apple knows best…and in many ways, they do.

This highlights another seemingly obvious-yet-not-so-obvious trait of Apple: they care about their customers more than they care about developers. I’m guessing the great majority of people (95%? – I’d be interested if there are statistics out there) don’t know about nor have even heard of the iPhone hacking scene. They’ve got their iPhone and iTunes and that’s it.

Reasons 1 and 2 above speak to Apple’s true loyalty. While there are a lot of great applications written for the iPhone, nobody knows (or much cares about) SSH or IRC. Nor they want anything to do with “Jailbreaking” their iPhone. They just want it to work as advertised. designers, we all know about the dreaded “design by committee.” Design’s inherent subjectivity can quickly turn a tightly-focused effort into an ugly free-for-all. The reality is tough and somewhat unfriendly: it’s hard to democratize a vision. While we want to invite all sorts of stakeholders to the party, the outcome is rarely good and oftentimes bad.

This leads back to the title of this blog entry: does Apple know best? Based on their track record, they probably do. People love their products because they design great products. They don’t ask for feedback. They don’t have betas. They don’t do the focus group thing (at least that I know of).

It’s a design dictatorship. Their products just show up, all polished and ready for sale. Version 1.0 and ready for consumption. And the customers, not the developers, vote on their success. And as long as Apple keeps succeeding, they’ll hold onto that power.

5 Comments Apple Knows Best

  1. Dave

    You mentioned three possible answers. I only see two in the post but maybe I’m not parsing it right. What’s the third reason?

  2. Phil Barrett

    Great article – i agree with your main point – only Apple really gets design and user experience.
    I was struck by the fact that my i-phone came with no instructions. Unlike other manufacturers who focus on making better instructions, Apple focused on making a better device that didn’t need any.
    How is that they are still the only technology company that gets this?
    I’ve blogged about my recent experience jailbreaking and unlocking my i-phone here:


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