So Is All Quiet on the iPhone Front?

December 4th, 2007

After this past summer’s iPhone frenzy, I suppose if you don’t see a story about this hot-selling gadget for more than a few days, you can speculate that the fever has died down. Or, perhaps more accurately, that people are too busy enjoying them to complain about them.

Certainly it was a raucous cat-and-mouse game for a while, as third parties developed schemes to unlock the phone and add the capability of installing extra software. As soon as they perfected the installation beyond power user status, Apple’s newest firmware upgrades would zap the software from the iPhone’s Flash drive, and force you to reinstall a newer version. That is, of course, when the update became available.

The conspiracy theories were extraordinary. Apple delivered that infamous 1.1.1 update strictly to render unlocked phones unusable, and thus the term iBrick was coined. So Apple confronted the very real possibility that it would have to declare war against millions of loyal customers or would-be customers.

We all know about those intrusive digital rights management processes from Microsoft, so had Apple become its own worst enemy?

Of course, when you look at the whole thing objectively, I think you’ll find blame on both sides of the fence. When Apple delivered that notorious phone-bricking update, they posted a clear warning about the consequences. If you decided to install the update anyway, you saw a screen prompt with a similar caution about the dire results. So if you still opted to run the installer anyway, what did you expect to happen?

Indeed, those who failed to heed the clearly-labeled warnings had only themselves to blame. Of course, that didn’t stop some from seeking aid through the courts for the allegedly unfair policies on the part of Apple and AT&T. Unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten that they don’t have to buy an iPhone if they don’t like the setup. Apple didn’t force them to make that purchase, nor did AT&T. And if you don’t like AT&T — and the latest issue of Consumer Reports still gives them very low marks for service quality and customer support — go buy another phone from another carrier.

The issue of locking in phones to specific carriers is another issue entirely. It’s certainly worth exploration and maybe addressing, but it’s not strictly an Apple and AT&T issue, OK?

In saying that, though, Apple should have been more proactive about setting things right. If people decided to defy the dictates of Steve Jobs and company, Apple could have established a program to restore the phones to pristine condition. Unless there was some sort of hardware modification involved — as there was with one particular unlocking technique I read about — it should be doable in software. Besides, since making unauthorized changes in the phone can void the warranty, Apple would have every right to charge you $79 or $99 (the figure commentator Andy Ihnatko cites) to get your phone restored. That would be an expensive object lesson, but at least your phone would operate once again.

If anything, I think Apple did commit a few missteps in their usually stellar public relations that began with that unexpected price cut in early September. Sure, they have a right to alter pricing whenever they want, and certainly it’s a common practice in the cell phone business. But Jobs didn’t need to issue that mea culpa the very next day, promising rebates and all for early adopters. That should have been part and parcel of the original announcement. Instead, Jobs ought to have have realized that taking a cavalier attitude about the whole thing just wouldn’t fly.

On the other hand, I think Apple’s approach towards allowing third-party software was appropriately cautious, even though it was widely misunderstood. Despite what some of you think, they never dismissed the possibility of allowing outsiders to develop software outside of the Web-based sandbox. From the very beginning, they talked about possible security concerns and the need to find a way that provided both flexibility and safety.

The announcement that an iPhone SDK would come out in February of next year was simply the realization of something they said from the very beginning. In fact, if you examine the various iPhone updates that have been released up to now, in addition to adding and improving features, Apple also closed security leaks.

As you probably know, those unofficial jailbreaking applications do their thing by exploiting a security lapse, in the same fashion as malware. Yes, they are beneficial in the sense that they provide software options Apple has yet to offer. But the technique of getting them to your iPhone is the same technique Internet criminals might use to assume control of your handset. It’s a dangerous thing, and such holes need to be shut down but good.

When Apple finally does release its official iPhone software solution, you can bet they will do everything possible to close even more leaks in the dam, to make your phone as secure as it can possibly be. What’s more, applications will be digitally signed for additional protection.

That won’t stop the critics from polluting the waters with false information and inferences. Some of them insist on portraying Apple as an evil entity that is as malicious as Microsoft, or even worse. At the same time, let’s not forget that the iPhone didn’t become so popular so quickly because Apple committed trickery to fool you into thinking it was a better product than other smartphones. That’s a decision you came to by yourself, reading the ads, the stories and the reviews.

Unlike Microsoft, Apple didn’t promise a product it couldn’t deliver, or deliver a product sans key features. Perhaps the only product delay of any significance on the part of Apple in recent years was Leopard, which still arrived with pretty much all of its features intact and then some. Oh right, there might be a very few minor things that changed, such as the ability of Time Machine to backup via Wi-Fi. But even that capability might be restored in a future system update.

Just remember that Apple isn’t your pal, even though most of you are devoted to their products. Apple Inc. is a multinational, profit-making corporation that exists to benefit their employees and stockholders. The fact that they do it with great products is just the icing on the cake, and it’s what kept them in business despite all the obstacles.

That’s something that Microsoft should learn, because its “make it just good enough” policy doesn’t quite fly as high as it used to.

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