I’ve always been a big fan of Apple’s. My first computer was an Apple IIe, and finding a copy of BASIC on there was what first got me into programming. A good percentage of the modern user interface concepts we take for granted today were invented by Apple back in the 1980s. (Yes, I know, they got the basic concepts from Xeroc PARC, but a lot of their work was their work, not Xerox’s.) They’ve always been one of the major drivers of innovation in the computer industry, and they’ve done a lot to hold the line against Microsoft’s campaign for complete domination of the computer industry. They’re one of a very few companies that have actually had any real success in that area, and we all owe them a debt of gratitude for that, if nothing else.
Apple released the latest iPhone development license yesterday, and I suddenly find myself a lot less grateful.
In case you haven’t already seen, it contains the following provision:
Among other things, that means no Object Pascal for the iPhone. At Delphi Live last year, the Embarcadero folks talked about “Native Delphi everywhere.” Everywhere but the iPhone and the iPad, apparently. Oh, and not on any phone that runs on Windows Phone 7 either; only .NET apps that use Silverlight or XNA are allowed there. Google’s Android is only slightly better. You’re “officially discouraged” from using anything but Java, but not outright prohibited. (Language choice is alive and well on Palm’s WebOS, but phones that run on it aren’t doing so well in the market.)
This also slams the door hard right in the face of all the folks at the Lazarus project and the fascinating work they’ve done on Objective-Pascal, and it calls the future of the Delphi team’s cross-platform work into question. With all of the blog posts about Delphi for the Mac in the upcoming “Fulcrum” project, it’s clear that Embarcadero is putting a lot of effort into making Delphi work on the Mac, and does anyone doubt that they had the iPhone/iPad in their sights as part of the long-term plan?
I spent a lot of time thinking about what makes this new policy so offensive to me. Apple has every right to build the iPhone however they want to. The design of the phone is their own intellectual property. And they have the right to build an App Store as a centralized place to buy and sell iPhone content. And if they own the App Store, it logically follows that they have every right to decide what apps people can offer on it. The store’s their property, after all. I’ve seen plenty of brick-and-mortar stores with signs that say “we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason,” and this is just the electronic version of that.
But here’s where we come to a problem. The design of the iPhone is Apple’s property. The App Store is Apple’s property. But the individual phones and iPads are not. If Apple sells an iPhone to me, it is transferring ownership of the device from Apple to me in exchange for an agreed-upon sum of money, and once this transfer has taken place, they no longer own it. It becomes my property, to do with as I please. That’s a very simple, intuitive concept that anyone can grasp, and it’s been a fundamental principle of capitalism since before Adam Smith wrote the how-to guide: as long as I do not use a personal possession in such a way as to cause actual harm to others, I can do whatever I want to with it.
This principle’s under attack now. The only way to get a new app on your iPhone is through the App Store, or by uploading it directly from your Mac if you have a Mac and the iPhone SDK. On my PC, I can go to some random website, download a new program and install it, but you can’t do that on an iPhone, even though it has a built-in Internet connection. In effect, Apple has decreed you only theoretically own the iPhone; you don’t own the part of it that receives new applications. That still belongs to Apple 100%.
Well, to be frank, that’s a bunch of crap. Apple has no right to tell me that I can’t download an iPhone app from some random website and install it on an iPhone if I want to, and Microsoft has no right to say that I can’t write non-.NET apps for the Windows Phone 7 OS if I can figure out the bindings. Any law that says they do have such a right is evil and needs to be repealed.
This isn’t just about the iPhone, or even phones in general. This is about the future of personal computing itself. What Apple’s managed to pull off with the iPhone looks a whole lot like Microsoft’s vision of the future, in which every computer contains a TPM chip that will place the ultimate control of the system’s functionality under the control of the owners of the software that runs on it, not the owner of the computer. This isn’t some hypothetical bad future bogeyman that Richard Stallman is cooking up to scare people into using Free Software, folks. This is what is really happening, right in front of us, today.
In any other context, taking control of the functionality of a computer away from the computer’s owner and using it against his will and against his interests is known as hacking that computer. It’s universally regarded as a form of computer crime, and rightfully so. But when DRM technology is involved, it’s not a crime; instead it’s a legally-protected “access control.” That’s what the DMCA and similar laws in other countries are all about: they explicitly give copyright owners the right to hack your computer, at any time and for any reason, if your computer runs their copyrighted material. And until this notion is reversed, and the use of DRM technology is legally recognized as the crime it is, we can expect to see the future of computing looking more and more like the iPhone.
It would seem that Apple has come full circle. Thanks to Apple Macintosh, 1984 was not like “1984”. But thanks to Apple iPhone, 2010 might be.