the genius of Steve Jobs: he makes you want the lock-in

Steve Jobs is a genius for many reasons, but one reason that may be under-appreciated is his unparalleled ability to convince users that he’s locking them into his platforms for their own good.

Consider Jobs’s latest letter explaining why he won’t accept Flash on the iPhone/iPad. Most of the letter is right on: Adobe’s Flash technology on the web is slow, not open, and best replaced by HTML5. Apple has a history of ditching old technologies and pulling industry forward: they killed the floppy disk on the iMac when everyone thought it was too early, they moved to flat screens across the line before others, they embraced USB peripherals and DVI video faster than everyone else, etc. Same thing here: Flash is bloated, slow, has serious security problems, and flies in the face of the open, copy-and-paste-the-source-code Web that we know and love. Apple is leading the way in removing it from its web browser. Good for them.

And then Jobs transitions:

Adobe also wants developers to adopt Flash to create apps that run on our mobile devices. We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform.

Except this is a sleight of hand: it’s just not true. Apple already has a mechanism to control for app quality: they can reject any app for any reason. So why add this additional level of control? Why automatically reject an app that happens to be originally built using Adobe’s cross-compiler, even if that app is good? The reason is in the next paragraph:

This becomes even worse if the third party is supplying a cross platform development tool.

Again, if an app is crappy, the user simply won’t buy it. So the problem for Apple is not that cross-platform necessarily means bad app (it doesn’t), but that cross-platform means…. cross-platform. If developers can easily create apps that run on iPhone, Android, WebOS, etc. then Apple has lost a bit of its lock-in. It’s easier for you to switch to a different platform. And that is something Jobs doesn’t want.

This is by no means the first time Jobs has deftly maneuvered to maximize user lock-in while making you think it’s for your own good. Remember DRM in iTunes? This was supposedly because of the music labels insisting on DRM. We were told that, without tight control over the spread of these music files, Jobs could never have convinced the labels to move legal music online. And we were thankful that Jobs had kicked the music industry into the 21st century, and most of us were willing to swallow the bitter pill of DRM. Except, now that iTunes sells non-DRM’ed songs, Apple has maintained all sorts of limitations that appear to be gratuitous. iTunes only syncs with iPods/iPhones, and Apple went out of its way to prevent Palm’s Pre phone from connecting to iTunes. Why? Because that would make it a little bit too easy for users to stop using Apple products.

The sad thing is, I think most of Apple’s products produce sufficient lock-in thanks to quality alone. I continue to use Apple desktop and laptops, because they’re that much better. But the artificial lock-in of the iTunes/iPod/iPhone/iPad chain is beginning to make me very uncomfortable. Jobs has convinced a lot of people that this lock-in is for their own good. I don’t believe him.

UPDATE: typo fix, thanks Hacker News.

7 thoughts on “the genius of Steve Jobs: he makes you want the lock-in

  1. “Apple already has a mechanism to control for app quality: they can reject any app for any reason. So why add this additional level of control? Why automatically reject an app that happens to be originally built using Adobe’s cross-compiler, even if that app is good?”

    You addressed the first part of Job’s statement but not the second (“and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform”). Once a good application is out in the wild, users will use it, depend on it, and make decisions about upgrades based upon its compatibility. Apple has made many sweeping changes and enhancements to its SDK since it was originally released, and Adobe doesn’t have a great track record keeping up with even the Mac (Core Image in Photoshop? Someday?), which moves much slower than the iPhone does. A large portion of developers will have to wait for Adobe to add new platform capabilities, and that does hurt the iPhone platform. The need for Apple to cater to previously “good” Flash applications would become a hinderance to the progress of the platform.

  2. If Apple introduces incompatible changes, I don’t see how they would have to cater to Adobe anymore than to individual developers who would need to make changes to their native apps, too. And again, Apple can always yank those apps out if they are not upgraded past a certain point. Your point is by far the most valid technically of the set, but it’s still not the root issue, I don’t think.

  3. All I can say as an open source developer is, ahaha suck it down app store developers. Dance with the devil, this is what happens. It’s not like it wasn’t patently obvious this was coming.

  4. Applications written with a cross-platform development tool _are_ starting with a handicap, and its a handicap that is usually directly related to the height of both of the platforms’ framework stacks. This makes a tremendous difference when using a cross-platform UI stack (since UI stacks tend to be large and non-homogenous), vs. a bare computing or networking stack. Having “native” UI code and cross-platform business logic seems like a fine way of not watering down the platform, and yet this is not allowed.

    I can, however, still fathom a reason for maintaining (at least) a ban on the (UI) cross-platform libraries use — even if they were to hold these apps up to the “high” standards of native (UI) frameworks, they’d still be responsible for repeatedly shooting down applications for being “tacky”. The cost of dealing with those submissions and their probably repeated denials is something they can easily obviate with a stroke of their legal pen.

    My only suspicion is that only Apple will decide whether or not to enforce these clauses, and that developers will continue to submit products that don’t meet the criteria of the license, and for apps/developers deemed to be helping the platform, Apple may look the other way.

  5. Pingback: The Openness of Flash » pixxid

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