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Did Apple Head Off The Feds at the Pass?

In an unexpected move, Apple has reversed the controversial decision blocking third-party development tools on the iOS platform. What this means is that software companies are no longer restricted to Apple’s own Xcode-derived environment, but can use their own. The proviso is that the app not download code as part of the process of running on your iOS device.

Now that, in and of itself, is a huge change in posture. Just weeks ago, Steve Jobs was railing against the use of third-party compilers, claiming that they hurt the advancement of the platform. At the time, it was suggested that other tools of that sort might not support key iOS features, such as multitasking, and would dumb down the apps to providing minimal support.

That was one change, but there is another, one developers have to cheer, and that’s release of actual written App Store guidelines. In theory, this means that if a developer plays by rules known to everyone, the process of getting an app approved ought to be trivial.

Of course, a published set of rules may not account for all possible situations, or gray areas, but at least the process will be far more predictable, or at least that’s how it seems. And, the new App Review Board should, in theory, help deal with app rejections in a more transparent fashion, and offer developers at least some hope that a bad decision can be overturned.

Now the specifics aren’t so important as the intent, which is to ease the restrictions of Apple’s walled garden. The question, of course, is why this announcement suddenly appeared out of the blue?

One possible reason is that Apple would rather change the rules on their own terms, rather than have them developed and enforced by the authorities in the U.S. and possibly Europe.

This isn’t to say that the agencies investigating Apple will suddenly shut down their probes. But the rules have changed, and that could satisfy potential objections before they’re made. Certainly Apple can afford to hire the best legal teams around, but the negative publicity, particularly if the headlines and 24/7 cable news networks provide coverage similar to the Antennagate affair, could hurt sales.

Consider that recent survey of smartphone owners, indicating that 20% might not buy an iPhone because of perceived problems with the antenna, even though Apple and others have demonstrated that competing products suffer from the very same shortcomings. A lot of people clearly don’t believe Apple, and an unknown number of iPhones might not be sold.

Of course, with Apple still quoting three-week delivery times for online purchases, maybe it doesn’t matter.

On the other hand, maybe Apple’s target isn’t the Feds or some overseas government agency. Maybe it’s all about competition, particularly from Google. As you know, the Android OS is gaining an awful lot of market share really fast. Almost every day, it seems there’s another new Android gadget available, and the mobile carriers that don’t carry iPhones are spending loads and loads of money to blanket the broadcast and print media with ads for such gear.

Even AT&T is pushing other products, knowing there’s a finite time for them to have the iPhone exclusive. Even the poor-selling BlackBerry Torch is getting heavy-duty advertising.

These days, it seems that Apple is spending a large share of marketing cash on the iPad. I see those spots almost everywhere, and they sometimes strike me as more ubiquitous than iPhone ads.

In any case, Apple is being inundated by loads of negative publicity from competing companies. An Android OS phone is open, Apple’s iOS is closed. It’s easier to develop for Android because there are fewer restrictions and a far greater chance of getting your app approved. What’s more, with the rapid growth of the platform, more and more developers are considering their options.

Now the iPhone doesn’t have to be number one to be successful. So long as Apple can report a significant increase in sales each and every quarter, it doesn’t matter if the competition is also succeeding.

But if the closed ecosystem is perceived as a disadvantage, and the government is watching over them, Apple might find that being politically correct is the best long-term approach.

Now I’m not going to suggest that the published App Store guidelines will eliminate all or most of those alleged arbitrary objections that developers complain about. It’s also not certain how Adobe might be impacted. Would Apple not just allow you to build an iPhone app from Flash, but allow Adobe to have a Flash plugin installed on an iOS device? So far, nothing is being said about any change in that situation.

In fact, I think that would be going too far, and it would severely undermine Apple’s widely publicized objections to Flash. On the other hand, if Apple and Adobe actually worked together to build a more stable version, one that was better able to handle complicated navigation requirements on a touchscreen, maybe. But I remain highly skeptical of that.

For now, I think the best you’ll see is a somewhat freer environment to build App Store apps, but that’s as far as it will go.