Click to viewIt's about 3 months after the iPhone launch, and happy with the improvements, I was planning to change our "Wait" verdict to a full-on and rabid "Buy". That wasn't because of Apple, but because of the cool apps being offered by independent developers. All that came to an end yesterday after the new Apple firmware 1.1.1 neutered the handset. Sure, unlocked iPhones were broken. But more importantly, Apple wiped away the powerful programs that helped push the iPhone to greatness. With this, I'm going to have to move our recommendation from "Wait" to "Don't hold your breath." I'm done with this handset until third-party apps come back. Argh, I didn't want to have to write this, but this is what's on my mind.
It's understandable for Apple to wage a war on unlocking the iPhone, since the company shares revenue from fees with AT&T. But the truth is, if cellphone service was awesome, like it is on iTunes, there wouldn't be a need to unlock the iPhone. Secondly, bricking these things is totally uncool, and apparently, malicious—according to some early code investigations by the independent iPhone Dev Team, Apple could have avoided this entirely.
I get that Apple might not have wanted to wage a long back-and-forth war with hackers, as the PSP developers are. And this kind of big blow is going to be a devastating and effective scare tactic, even if a fix comes a few days later. Unlike a Sony PSP, people can't go a few days without their phones, without social or work hiccups. This is why I never unlocked my main iPhone, only testing these hacks on a spare 4GB test dummy. But I don't want to be held hostage like this. Did I buy these phones or am I just renting them?
Screw the unlock for a second. Let's talk about the those third-party apps. While my 4GB iPhone is a brick, and the 8GB phone, which I kept on a totally legit AT&T contract, is now stripped down. Programs like the faux-GPS, IM clients, Flickr Upload, and NES emulator—what did they ever do but make the iPhone far better than the stock original? They made it far more competitive with open-platform superphones like the Nokia N95, to which I will now be switching. I flew back from NY to SF today. While there, I would have liked to have pushed my photos from the trip to flickr; I would have liked to have played NES games on the subway. I would have liked to have used the Navizon GPS thing to figure out where the hell I was at any given moment, and when I used one of those web 2.0 IM clients, my battery took a huge hit, and I missed a lot of messages because Safari couldn't tell me I was getting IMs while out of the browser. Very annoying.
I look at my iPhone with version 1.1.1 software on it compared to the old hacked one. I'm happy for the iTunes Store, which we've been waiting for. But it's not more important than fixing things, and adding capabilities such as copy/paste and email search. And it's certainly not better than all those programs I can't use anymore. Here's the comparo chart, from Rob Beschizza at Wired based on a chart from 9to5:
At Mossberg's All Things D conference, Jobs mentioned that the thing Apple wasn't good at, compared to MSFT, was the ability to work with partners. Some believe that's a big part of why Apple lost the Big OS War back when GI Joe was a Saturday morning cartoon. So why make the same mistake twice?
There's a question here of "if we liked the stock iPhone before, why not now?" First off, the verdict was based on the future value of the iPhone once Apple had fixed a lot of the quirks that resulted our "wait" verdict. Right now, it seems like Apple isn't going to innovate that much more, since much of our list of what needed to be patched is still unfulfilled.
I'm not so deluded that I think this little rant of mine will stop Apple from selling millions of these phones. But I'm pretty sure this is what other geeks are thinking. And possibly, more than just the geeks. Today, I met a regular guy at the SoHo apple store who went in to service his iPhone after installing some apps, and the firmware, which bricked his phone; he's just your average joe, upset to find out his phone isn't repairable (video here). And at the airport, the security guard guy recognized me and told me he was holding off on the new firmware as he patted me down. (His iPhone was running on T-Mobile.) Saul Hansel at the NYTimes is following the story closely, noting that the Navizon GPS app, a hack, was downloaded 80k times. That's almost 10 percent of all iPhone users, who we know to have been using installer.app, likely the smartest of all iPhone users. And David Pogue decided to teach the mainstream the benefit of the hacks with one of his videos, entitled Hacking the iPhone; unfortunately it came out the day the firmware did. Hmm. Maybe there's no reason to think that these apps belong in the tech ghetto. Smart iPhone users, geeks or not, are hacking the iPhone; this is how people are choosing to use it. So, Apple, even if you have to fight the unlocks, the apps deserve to live. It's what we all want. I hope we can work it out.
UPDATE: The hackers have figured out how to downgrade the phone to version 1.02 of the firmware, reversing any bricking and restoring use of third party apps. Good news, but that doesn't change the fact that we've got to make a choice between Apple's upgrades and the ones by third party developers.
[Jack S over at The Guardian has a article in response ending with "
Now Jobs has finally moved into an industry where control freakery is the norm, why would you expect him to give it up?" Worth reading for, you know, a reality check. And Owen from Valleywag goes further, debating on Apple's behalf. Chris Null at Yahoo picked up the issue, too. ]