We’ve all heard by now about the iPhone kill switch, a.k.a. the blacklist feature. Apple CEO Steve Jobs confirmed its existence. The intent behind the capability is high-minded, according to Jobs. Apple would need it in case a malicious program inadvertently were to be distributed to iPhones via the App Store. “Hopefully, we never have to pull that lever,” Jobs said, “but we would be irresponsible not to have a lever like that to pull.”
On the one hand, it is refreshing to see an industry titan like Jobs speak of responsibility. On the other, Apple clearly could use this capability to thwart would-be competitors and punish developers who crack the iPhone’s software. Some developers think it’s amazing that the industry seems to forgive Apple for behavior that would draw intense criticism if it were Microsoft.
But there is a huge difference in profit motive between Apple and Microsoft. Apple makes most of its money directly on hardware and doesn’t seem to be competing with its own iPhone applications. Jobs is betting that third-party applications will sell more iPhones and iPod touches, enhancing the appeal of the products in the same way music sold through the iTunes Store has made iPods more desirable. But Apple doesn’t promote a charade of choice with regard to operating systems, cell services, and third-party hardware — there is no choice within Apple’s world, but there are plenty of choices in the outside world because you can choose another phone or computer. By comparison, Microsoft makes money indirectly (through licenses) on hardware, but most of that is paid up front; its business model is to lock you into a software platform that monopolizes the hardware industry to guarantee profits from licenses, and to promote a charade of choices within that platform. As a result, you have a plethora of hardware choices controlled (some would say haphazardly) by Microsoft.
So Apple can claim the ethical high ground in protecting its platform, as its platform is not a monopoly. I would argue that the kill switch is an innovative approach to protecting a platform in this age of criminal conspiracies to steal your personal information. It may even be the first major example of this approach; I’m not sure. But I know I would have loved this capability if Microsoft could have implemented it to kill malicious applications running on Windows — especially ones that turn Windows machines into spam zombies. And as an iPhone user, I feel more comfortable about using the product.
The kill switch makes sense, but it had nothing to do with Apple’s removal of applications from the App Store — for the most part, the removal story circulated because the company recently removed an embarrassing app, priced at $999.99, called “I Am Rich” that did nothing but display a glowing ruby (and presumably confirm that any purchaser would be filthy rich, perhaps even irresponsibly rich). This was a case of Apple making a judgment call about distributing a product, which any distributor has a right to do.
I don’t think Apple has any need to suppress app development, unless that development cracks the tight integration with AT&T’s services. And I think Apple has a right to protect its platform with this innovative approach. You can choose another smart phone, though I bet that as these smart phones (including those running Windows Mobile) grow in market share and diversity of applications, their vendors will also implement kill switches. It may turn out to be the best way to protect our personal information on our smart phones, as well as the best way for manufacturers to improve brand loyalty.