The iPhone SDK: A Look at Apple’s Gatekeeper Status

March 10th, 2008

Although most of the comments about Apple’s plans for enterprise support and third-party development for the iPhone and iPod touch strike me as essentially positive, there are certainly serious questions as to how it’ll all play out.

Obviously, we won’t know all the answers until the iPhone 2.0 firmware is available in June (assuming it ships on time), and software becomes available via the Apps Store. But I think I can make a few credible guesses right now, and the news looks really good for everyone, including the small and large developers who are even now working on iPhone software.

After paying $99 per year for admission into the developer program, or $299 for the enterprise program, Apple will exact a 30% take on every sale of an iPhone application. If your application is free, no problem. Apple will distribute it free of charge.

However, whether or not shareware will be allowed isn’t exactly clear, since payment often isn’t made until you’ve had a chance to give the software a try. Even then, you may decide not to pay and stop using it.

Now on the surface, it would seem that a 30% commission might be a tad expensive, but it’s actually an outstanding bargain, and I don’t think Apple’s going to profit very much as a result. Consider that the average retailer will grab 50% from a software company for selling their product, and the company will still have to pay for distribution and promotion. With the Apps Store, Apple will take care of anything, and then send you a check for the balance. That means they’ll host your content, run the promotional blurbs, pictures, everything. I also suspect they’ll feature hot-selling or specially selected products at the top of the list, if iTunes is an example.

Now when you add up the cost of doing all this yourself, particularly if you are a one-person company, you can see where just building and supporting your product and collecting payments for sales is a far more economical proposition. To be sure, I can’t see where Apple would stop you from promoting your killer iPhone application independently with banner ads, print ads, radio spots, whatever. You’d simply point to Apple as the distributor of your stuff. Makes sense to me.

However, the second part of the equation might not seem so compelling. You see, Apple isn’t just going to sell whatever you give them, contrary to the way things work with the entertainment companies on iTunes. They will reserve the right to reject your product for whatever reasons suit them. In practice, this will mean that dancing nudes might not see the light of day, nor would software that appears to encourage illegal activity. This might mean that you won’t get, say, a Bit Torrent sort of program, because that could be used to promote digital piracy.

There may, of course, be gray areas where a product would seem to be essentially legal in scope, but might be readily abused, but I can see where you can do that with most anything, so that would mean Apple The Gatekeeper wouldn’t approve anything, which is simply absurd.

Again, Apple’s level of censorship won’t be known until the products are available, and those who found their products on the reject list have a chance to complain publicly.

On another front, I can see where Apple might do one good thing, which is that they will, at the very least, certify that a product functions as advertised and doesn’t present a serious compatibility and/or security problem. Right now, there are thousands and thousands of applications available for your Mac. But, aside from user ratings, which may not come for a while with a newly-released program, you really have no way of knowing in advance whether it’ll perform properly, or will just send your Mac crashing away.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the folks who run the existing download sites should be more focused on certifying products before they are posted. On the other hand, assuming that such things aren’t done in an arbitrary fashion, or because a developer handed them a check for special display in big, bold type, it might be a good idea. Of course an active user community that reports frequently on how products work in the real world might just be enough.

When it comes to Apple, however, they will be putting their good name on the line in distributing iPhone and iPod touch software. They are going to be extremely careful, especially at the beginning as the roll-out progresses. This also means that not everyone who applies will be automatically approved for admission to the developer or enterprise programs.

However, it would be nice if the folks who were able to jailbreak iPhones in a friendly fashion, which means to run useful utility software and not unlock the things, get early opportunities to develop street legal applications. I expect they can leverage their experience with the platform to create great products that will greatly enhance your enjoyment of your iPhone and iPod touch.

But as I said, this is all preliminary. Ask me again in June.

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3 Responses to “The iPhone SDK: A Look at Apple’s Gatekeeper Status”

  1. mark says:

    Apple already does some sort of checking with the 3rd-party downloads (apps, widgets, etc) on And it does some sort of checking with downloads (podcasts) on iTunes. In both cases, not everything that could be found on the web winds up on or iTunes.

    I don’t think this will be that much different except for the limitation on software that might interfere with other Apple initiatives or Apple’s contracts (like with the carriers).

  2. Louis Wheeler says:

    I’m not sure where these paranoid fantasies are coming from: Steve Jobs, although a perfectionist, has never done a good Hitler imitation.

    Some people in the FOSS community take it as a right to have untrammeled freedom, even when this means that they get to ride roughshod over other people–even, their customers.

    Apple is a business. It has to protect its own interests and the interests of its customers. Sometimes, this means that Apple must oppose the interest of abusive people: that was the Music Industry in the past, or in the case, perhaps, the iPhone software developers.

    Apple needs an orderly marketplace first. It needs to keep out the junky, get-rich-quick, exploitive apps, because they lower Apple’s brand name. Apple is likely to restrict apps which don’t deliver quality to their customers. Or are illegal or unsavory in some way. Will the iPhone developers complain that Apple is being too harsh a gatekeeper, then? Sure. So what?

    Markets are there to serve the interests of the customers, not the producers. Initially, Apple needs to maintain its quality standards. Eventually though, Apple can loosen up, because vigorous competition will get rid of the junk.

    If the iPhone software developers act responsibly, then few restrictions will be applied to them.

    Also, the iPhone will evolve: its hardware will get faster, stronger and less battery draining. So, Apple will increasingly allow background applications that do not drain the battery flat.

    Apple has, already, been attempting to be reasonable. It will allow Skype over Wi-Fi, when this could threaten its contract with AT&T. We are not privy to Apple’s decision making, but usually Apple makes good decisions. Or when people complain enough, they make changes.

  3. Link33 says:

    I have an iPod Touch and I will tolerate unstable software even less than I do on the traditional OS X environment on it. When a program is active, it takes over the whole screen. Similar to the first iteration of application switching with System 5 and 6 on the early Macs. If a program crashes while it’s active, it impedes my ability to do anything at all with the device, including stopping the music so I can hear a conversation directed to me. I know you can “force quit” programs on the device, but how often have you had to power down the device to really clear it out?
    I can’t even imagine how pissed I would be if I had a iPhone that had a 3rd party app crash while I needed to use the phone. Hopefully Apple will have some testing in place to make sure the original set of tools still work regardless of the 3rd party app. And what about malicious programs? A virus perhaps or an automated dialer to pay as you go telephone number? I’d rather have someone with resources watching my back, especially on a device like this.

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